But in the question period after the presentation, I asked Baumeister how else, aside from eating well, could willpower be strengthened. His response was this: Exercise strengthens willpower just as it strengthens muscles. Even a meaningless exercise of will — training yourself to use your left hand for a task instead of your right, for instance — can make the will stronger over time. He added — I quote from memory: “When I was a boy, I used to be baffled by the idea of profanity. I used to wonder why there should be all these words that everyone knew but nobody used. But now I understand: that strengthens willpower.”
Well, right. In other words, behaving well, behaving responsibly, learning the norms of politeness and refusing to abandon them without good reason tend to make you a more self-controlled, successful, and finally better person.
This is precisely the wisdom my generation threw away. Their promiscuity, adolescent foul-mouthedness, bad manners, and disregard for tradition — all of which they claimed were a new kind of freedom — were in fact the precursors to the very oldest kind of slavery: slavery to one’s own impulses and desires. This slavery, packaged in the Sixties as “identity” or “culture” or “the right to be yourself,” ultimately leads to enslavement by others as it makes you indolent and irresponsible and in need of protection and restraint by the powers that be. A poor black man’s journey from hip hop culture to prison is a perfect example. So is a middle class white man’s journey from moral license and unwarranted praise to his sniveling need for an all-providing — oh, and by the way, all-powerful — state.
A government that wants more power knows well it can acquire that power by stripping the citizenry of every need and opportunity to provide for and take control of themselves — every reason to exercise their will. Welfare, unending unemployment benefits, “free” health care, business bailouts, the “right” to live off your parents’ insurance until you’re 47 or whatever: these, not religion, are the true opiate of the people.
My generation, using the loftiest possible language, destroyed the loftiest possible image of man — his image as God-made creature endowed with the right to be left alone. Instead, they declared him a weak collection of needs with some mysterious right to have those needs paid for by other people’s earnings. They told us government had to provide the citizen’s material needs even if it hampered his ability to live free.
Instead they should have asked: ”What does it profit a man to gain the whole world, if he forfeits his own soul?”