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Love vs. Willpower

What do we need to master our shortcomings? Many of us might jump to the conclusion that the key to our predicament is more willpower. But we would be wrong.

Love vs. Willpower
This month we commemorate Saint Therese of Lisieux, doctor of the Church, whose vocation, as she declared it, was "to be love in the heart of the Church." The Little Flower's conviction provides the perfect opportunity to expose what we might call the "myth of willpower." What does that mean?

Every day, it seems, we're faced with temptations that get the better of us. We become demoralized by the reality of just how weak we really are. We're done in by the fact of our moral failure. Our sins convict us. Yet, despite it all, we still want to be holy. We even want to be perfect. So we wonder: What do we need in order to master our shortcomings? Many of us might jump to the conclusion that the key to our predicament is more willpower. But we would be wrong.

Weakness of affect

Very often the reason why our life of faith falters is not because of a weakness of willpower, but because of a weakness of affect. We don't love enough. When our sanctity stalls, the solution isn't "just trying harder." Rather, the antidote lies in loving more radically, more authentically. Our affection needs to be strengthened, educated, energized, realized.

Why isn't more willpower the answer? Think about it. When wrestling with our personal flaws, an increase of willpower might in fact be the last thing that we need. For what is the root of all sin: pride. An extra dose of willpower would only inflate our egoism and arrogance. It would worsen our delusion that we are everything we need... that we can do everything ourselves... that we are the best and the brightest... that we are in charge of our lives, etc. Willpower breeds the kind of self-reliant self-righteousness that remains the exact opposite of what it means to be faithful to Jesus ("Apart from me you can do nothing"). In this way, an augmentation of willpower would make us vicious, not virtuous. Willpower gained without growth in charity would turn us into robots.

In a certain sense, our willpower is like our arms, or legs, or ears, or eyes. Sure, if we had a spare pair of arms we would be able to do an awful lot more. But as a consequence, we would lose something of our humanity. Surplus appendages would make us monstrous. Or if we had an extra set of eyes, how much more could we see! But everyone else would want the owner of such supplementary sight to get out of their sight. To look upon a four-eyed face would just be far too freaky.

In other words, we may well possess exactly as much willpower as we actually need. The challenge of daily temptations, in which we're confronted with the plight of our own powerlessness, summons us to beg�not for more willpower, but�for more love.

The Power of Love

How can you tell when someone is in love? Very often a person in love remains utterly oblivious to the annoyances and aggravations that would otherwise set him off. Something greater takes hold of the one in love. Even more, people in love sometimes lose their appetite to eat. Love keeps them completely surfeited, satisfied. And if love can subdue a person's appetite for food, then why can't it subordinate other irksome appetites, like those involving impatience, anger, sex, willfulness, the need always to be right�in short, all the things that get us into trouble? Willpower can't rectify those disordered appetites. But the glorious truth is that love can.

Love is eminently more efficient and effective than willpower could ever be. And unlike willpower, we can never have too much love. It's what we're made for. Moreover, when we love something or someone, when we want something with all our hearts, we don't then have to worry about the willpower to attain it. That comes naturally. When our affection is engaged, our willpower is galvanized. An athlete with an ardent desire to win a game doesn't have to coax his willpower into cooperating. That's silly. His willpower eagerly follows the lead of his affect. The contest may be threatening, the sacrifice formidable, the price of victory great. But in the end, it is affection that effects the athlete's triumph, not his willpower.

The same holds true for the skirmishes of our life. The moment of being faced with menacing temptations is the time to ask: What do I love? How do I love? Do I love? The fact of our fallenness is our cue to fall in love. If we allow ourselves to be consumed by the love of Christ, then the willpower to live his life in the present moment will be actualized in us without fail (in accordance with God's providence). As Saint Therese put it, "When charity has buried its roots deeply within the soul, it shows itself externally."
October 30, 2003

PETER JOHN CAMERON, O.P. is a Dominican priest, Editor-in-Chief of Magnificat, and the founder and director of the Blackfriars Repertory Theatre. He is an award-winning author of more than a dozen plays.

This article was originally published in the October 2003 issue of Magnificat. Copyright 2003, Magnificat. All rights reserved.

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10.30.03   Godspy says:
What do we need to master our shortcomings? Many of us might jump to the conclusion that the key to our predicament is more willpower. But we would be wrong.

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