In Ben Elton’s book set during World War One, The First Victim, there is a scene in the trenches where a bomb explodes right next to the protagonist. The blast pushes him underground into the liquid mud. He has no idea which way up he is. He only knows that he is buried in mud.
Most people in this situation would panic but not our hero. He is a cool customer who has spent his life honing his self-control. He fights down the instinct to just thrash about wildly and calms himself long enough to listen for where the barrage of guns is coming from. Is it coming from over his head or below his feet? He hears some dull thudding and immediately makes for the sound, twisting and turning his body in an attempt to wriggle free of the goo. Finally, you’ll be relieved to hear, he bursts through the surface, gasping for air.
I have no idea if such a thing is possible but I enjoyed the scene and it has stuck with me. The man showed amazing self-control, something that I totally lack. In difficult situations my brain turns to scrambled egg and I go into automatic, unthinking mode. It is a mystery to me how pilots in Fighter Command in World War Two were able to steel themselves sufficiently to get into their planes, knowing that they stood a good chance of dying a horrible death on every mission.
I can just about imagine feats of heroism like rushing a nest of machine guns (why a nest?) or fighting off an intruder in your house, but these are acts of bravery rather than self-control.
Robert Dinero’s character in The Deer Hunter exemplifies someone who has mastered his fears to a large degree, so much so that even in the Viet Cong torture camp he takes time to comfort his terrified friend, Stevie.
To a lesser degree Burt Reynold’s character in Deliverance is a similar kind of character. Jon Voigt on the other hand can’t stop his hand from shaking long enough to kill either a deer or a would-be rapist-murderer.
You can even find descriptions of self-control in poetry, as in Robert Frost’s ‘Two Tramps in Mud Time’. Here the narrator is talking about chopping wood:
Good blocks of oak it was I split,
As large around as the chopping block;
And every piece I squarely hit
Fell splinterless as a cloven rock.
The blows that a life of self-control
Spares to strike for the common good,
That day, giving a loose my soul,
I spent on the unimportant wood.
A life of self-control has allowed him to expertly and pleasurably chop wood, putting his whole being into it. This might be an instance of what Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls ‘flow’, which Wikipedia describes like this:
Flow is a mental state in which a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity. In essence, flow is characterized by complete absorption in what one does.
So self-control comes up in books, movies and poetry. It also crops up in songs like ‘Big Bad John’ sung by Johnny Cash. Here is the song and here are the lyrics:
Every morning at the mine, you could see him arrive.
He stood 6 foot 6, weighed 245.
Kind of broad at the shoulders, narrow at the hip.
And everybody knew you didn’t give no lip to Big John.
Big Bad John
Nobody seemed to know where John called home
He just drifted into town and stayed all alone.
He didn’t say much, kind of quiet and shy
And if you spoke at all, you’d just said ‘Hi’ to Big John.
Somebody said he came from New Orleans,
Where he got into a fight over a Cajun Queen.
And a crash and a blow from a huge right hand,
sent a Lousiana fella to the promise land.
Big bad John
Then came the day at the bottom of the mine,
when a timber cracked and men started crying.
Minors were praying, and hearts beat fast
and everybody thought they had breathed their last ‘cept John.
Through the dust and the smoke of this man made hell,
walked a giant of a man that the minors knew well.
Grabbed a sagging timber and gave out with a groan,
and like a giant oak tree he just stood there alone, Big John
Big Bad John
And with all of his strength, he gave a mighty shove.
Then a minor yelled out, ‘there’s a light up above!’.
And 20 men scrambled from a ‘would be’ grave
Now there’s only one left down there to save, Big John.
With jacks and timbers, they started back down,
Then came that rumble way down in the ground.
And as smoke and gas smelched out of that mine,
Everybody knew it was the end of the line, for Big John.
Big Bad John
Now they never re-opened that worthless pit,
They just placed a marble stand in front of it.
These few words are written on that stand,
‘At the bottom of this mine, lies one Hell of a man, Big John’
This is great stuff. All Big John’s instincts must have been crying out to try to save himself but he had the presence of mind to think calmly. He knew that whatever he did, he was not going to get out of the mine alive. He could, however, still help others escape. Again, it is not so much his self-sacrifice that I admire as his self-control.
Whenever I see a TV documentary about hospitals or care homes or the policing of inner city areas or a hundred other things that scare me I say to myself, ‘I couldn’t do that’. What I tend to forget is that none of these nurses or carers or policemen could do what they do unless they had first attained some degree of self-control. They too must have had to fight down the urge to turn away from some gruesome sight, or to run away from a dangerous situation. I admire this ability to tame your emotions.
On the other hand there are people who are fat, alcoholic, addicted to drugs or other things. They seem to me to have no self-control at all. Rather than do what’s best for themselves or others they do what comes naturally, regardless of the predictably bad consequences.
Some people might argue that they get pleasure from smoking, drinking, taking drugs and eating sweet and fatty foods. I have some sympathy with this and think that the pleasure you get from an activity is not unimportant. Even so, there is also an austere satisfaction in having the willpower to give up smoking, resist drinking too much, beat a drug addiction or forgo a packet of chocolate biscuits. Or at least, so I am told.
I would like to achieve a larger degree of self-control. I’m not going down any mines, jumping into muddy trenches or getting into Spitfires though I might try and resist those chocolate biscuits the next time I go shopping. Well, you have to start somewhere.