In today’s workplace, employees who act on violent impulses or indulge in hazard-creating habits are a serious danger. Drug tests, metal detectors and screening systems will not alter the underlying problem. Positive change can come about only when we deal with the fact that many individuals never learned the lesson to just say no.
When Nancy Reagan first used Just Say No in the 1980s to promote her anti-drug message to young people, many scoffed.
Truth is, it is possible to Just Say No to drugs or other vices if the strength of will is there. But given human nature, that strength is often lacking. Just Say No? Some can. But many can’t.
The way out of this dilemma is to confront the nature of willpower, the inner control over urges and impulses. Some of us seem to have more inner control than others. Clearly, the people with greater will power have an advantage. They are better at saying No to bad things and Yes to good things.
Where does this strength come from? I say it comes from exercise, from practice, just the way muscles get stronger with exercise or skills get better with practice. Many athletes exercise by lifting weights in a gym, for example. Musicians practice scales and arpeggios in the studio. These artificial situations isolate some ability or technique and work it intensely, improving it through repetition. Training starts easy and works up to progressively more difficult levels. The activities are not duplicated on the court or in the concert hall, of course, but the strength and skill obtained definitely enhance performance.
Likewise, willpower needs to be exercised. Inner control takes practice. So, like the athlete or musician, we must create artificial situations that help us build strength and skill progressively. This training makes us ready for real life.
When I was a child, I was encouraged to give up candy for Lent, which usually comes around this time of year. The idea was to “practice self denial,” or, in other words, to just say no. Giving up candy didn’t mean anything itself and there was no real harm in slipping, yet it taught me to recognize urges and desires and to practice inner control over them. Giving up candy was for beginners. Adults in those days followed more strenuous regimens of fasting and self-denial. When I was older, I discovered that other faiths had their own disciplines to develop these inner strengths.
As individuals, we need those inner strengths. Without them, a strong and safe society cannot exist.