Sickness Unto Death

Discipline is the virus I have yet to catch. Many of my peers have contracted it, and some have succumbed: the editors I know work ungodly hours with few breaks. Others make six figures in finance, or write opinion pieces for the New York Times.

By Martyn Wendell Jones

Discipline is the virus I have yet to catch. Many of my peers have contracted it, and some have succumbed: the editors I know work ungodly hours with few breaks. Others make six figures in finance, or write opinion pieces for the New York Times. My own brother, God have mercy, works in iOS development in Chicago. Each compels him- or herself to work with such regular, machinelike effort that I question whether this virus has returned them to an inorganic state. Cautiously, I’ve come to suspect that I may be immune.

My lack of affliction is most evident in my approach to writing. Like many fellow non-sufferers, I find it easier to write in the intercostal spaces of life—the forty-five minutes of my washer’s cycle, or the half hour before I need to leave the house for work—than in the wide-open swaths I sometimes clear out for myself. Faced with a free morning, I putter about. Give me instead a chunk of 80 minutes free wedged into a busy day; I’ll write three times as many words.

I see the disease running its course among my friends, and, envious of their suffering (and their fast-rising careers), I try to ape the symptoms. I do this by tricking myself into working—“oh, I’ll just write a quick preliminary sketch”—or by letting my dread build up until it forces me to sweat through an assignment in an all-night rush.  Then, I can belong to the secret fellowship of the afflicted, even if only by a suggestive
emotional proximity.

I cannot decouple the notion of discipline from the notion of work, and my anxieties about the first flow naturally into my anxieties about the second. Christian Wiman’s poem “Five Houses Down” contains a judgment only a father could render: “His endless, aimless work / was not work, my father said.” This concerns a junkyard scavenger who fishes parts out of derelict cars. I worry whether I am doing work or not, prying lines out of books and linking them together to form new wholes. (If I’m having a good time, is it really work?) But the deeper cause for worry is my ability to let it all go for long periods, and for that not to matter to anyone but me.

Denis Johnson writes about the psychic salve of work for people who aren’t cut out for traditional occupations, and for whom the idea is almost exotic. In his story “Work,” two junkies spend part of a day stripping copper wiring out of derelict houses.  After selling it for scrap, the men take their earnings and go to a bar: All the really good times happened when Wayne was around. But this afternoon, somehow, was the best of all those times. We had money. We were grimy and tired. Usually, we felt guilty and frightened, because there was something wrong with us, and we didn’t know what it was; but today we had the feeling of men who had worked. Having worked is the goal. I wish this didn’t apply to writing because I like to think of writing as a joy, but it does—at least, when there’s a deadline and an expectation attached, it does.

In place of my occulted discipline, the affliction I don’t have, I find myself creating motivational proxies in order to complete my own work. Primarily, these are the needs (and threats) of other people, and of my own uncertain future.  Here is derived the dread spectre that looms during the all-nighter: if you don’t finish this, well, let’s not think about it. Red-eyed and doubled over with coffee-seared intestines the next morning, I collapse into bed and lose the day. My body feels like a dumpster. My mind, though: “today we had the feeling of men who had worked.”

People like me still manage to get things done. There are other kinds of discipline than that of the person who plans his bathroom breaks and permits himself to read two pieces of news per lunch. Connoting focus, rigour, a taut quality of attention, discipline is a requirement for any writer who intends to offer fidelity to the experience of life. That person’s hours may be irregular and haphazard, but if she’s serious about her work, the habits of virtue will develop apace regardless. Finally, we’re talking about an illness I know something about.

So I keep paying attention, getting the details right in the places where I can, and hoping that my forays into disciplined attention develop into more rigorous habits of virtue. I embrace deadlines as an augur of God’s waiting judgment and work in restrained fear of immolation. One day I hope to work the way normal people do, in reasonable amounts meted out over periods of reasonable time, but meanwhile, I am content to dance at the extremes, fearing much and enjoying much. Though I am not sick like you are, I am mortal all the same.

Discipline about craft—and, I surmise, discipline in general—leads to refinement, and a reduction of diffusion. Kierkegaard gives us a perfect analogy for this in Fear and Trembling: a person who is just learning to swim attempts to make the “infinite movement,” which is to say, he tries to ape the “form” of swimming, with every stroke. By contrast, the experienced swimmer has already “made” the infinite movement: she has learned the form, even mastered it. This is what enables her to make “finite movements” as finite movements. She can adjust her form to meet the challenge of a boat’s wake, a jumble of flotsam, or a smooth, flat lane, and she does so with practiced equanimity.

Mastery takes time—10,000 hours, by one famous count—and large amounts of time are best managed by people with a great capacity for discipline. Sick with efficiency, they have been “taught the measure of our days” and found the ways in which to make good on the loan of time we’ve each been given. Here is what I truly envy about the people who work like machines: their malady is a key that unlocks the darkest and most important secret of life.

I know what grows and thrives in my life because I am not afflicted with discipline. My reveries go on for minutes that turn into hours; my gaseous mind grows to fill the universe with a density of thought approaching that of the vacuum of space. I consider all, with a light and unserious touch, and develop few potencies into concrete and definite form. I am content with possibility. In this way, I leave the world behind.

Discipline requires a hard conversation with the facts of your life, a reckoning with your station, your means, and your hopes. It amounts to an embrace of the actual, and concomitantly, an embrace of what is most human about us: our finitude. It is a means of contracting into dimensions that are appropriate to mortal, sickly things.