When people hear the term Kung Fu they probably think of the martial arts and guys like Bruce Lee or Jackie Chan, or even the 1970s TV show Kung Fu. But expertise in the martial arts is apparently only one kind of Kung Fu.
The term Kung Fu translates as an acquired skill, work performed, special skill, strength, ability, or just time spent. One website even says, “The correct meaning, however, is any skill that is learned through hard work and practice, or more literally it can be said to mean ‘human achievement’.”
One could argue that being a good Catholic takes Kung Fu – effort, ‘time spent’ learning about the Faith, and even inner ‘strength.’ As Catholics, we are called to lead virtuous lives and become saints. One could say, therefore, that developing the strength of will needed to be virtuous takes some Kung Fu, too. Sainthood is, after all, the real pinnacle of ‘human achievement.’ But being virtuous is not all that easy an undertaking in an increasingly immoral and secular world.
While teaching an eighth-grade Preparation for Confirmation class this year I told the class that we become full-fledged members of the Church Militant in Confirmation – we become soldiers for Christ. This struck a chord with the boys in the class. One of them started doing karate chops and blurted out, ‘ya I want to be a soldier for Christ!’ The young man’s enthusiasm was laudable even while being a bit over the top. But his reaction struck a chord. Telling our kids to be virtuous is one thing; teaching them what they need to know to develop the willpower and self-control virtuous behavior requires is another.
Soldiers Need Training
The Catechism program (Faith Formation as it is now called) our parish uses for seventh and eighth graders is a 24-lesson program entitled “Chosen: Your Journey Toward Confirmation,” developed and offered by Ascension. In Lesson 21 of the program, students learn about the moral virtues – justice, fortitude, temperance, and prudence. They also learn that being virtuous takes effort and that the 12 gifts of the Holy Spirit (which they learned about in lesson 13) help them in their quest to be virtuous. But then, after some examples and not nearly enough discussion, due to time constraints, it’s on to the next lesson. But just telling teenagers they have to be virtuous is not nearly enough.
Luckily, a helpful video segment pops up in the very next lesson. Lesson 22 is about love, marriage and practicing chastity until marriage. The video segment is entitled “Tips for Practicing Chastity.” It offers 10 tips aimed at helping young people practice the virtue of chastity. The tips are solid, common sense suggestions on how to develop and strengthen willpower and self-control. Some of the tips are: Develop a Prayer Life (ask for help), Find Good Friends, Avoid Tempting Situations, and Keep Your Thoughts Clean and Your Heart Clean.
Unfortunately, the tips are not repeated in the books the students are given, so unless they take notes (which they don’t) they are likely to forget them. (I printed out copies of the tips, handed them out to the kids, and told them to take them home, frame them, and hang them on the wall in a prominent place in their bedrooms.)
Doing Battle With the Devil
But chastity is one of seven virtues that is subordinate to the virtue of Temperance. There are also five virtues subordinate to Justice, and four that are subordinate to Fortitude. And practicing any of these virtues –piety, humility, meekness, modesty, patience, or perseverance, just to name a few – requires self-control and strength of will.
Living a virtuous life takes both mental and physical discipline. We are, after all, doing battle with an enemy who is the master of lies and deception. He likes us proud but also weak and compliant. He wants us to be self-indulgent and nothing thrills him more than when we give into our passions and become ‘worldly.’ And based on the things society seems to value these days, he is probably quite pleased with himself. As Robert Royal commented recently at The Catholic Thing, “. . . has there ever been a shallower, narrower, more narcissistic, self-satisfied, and historically ignorant, spiritually impoverished, materialistic, impulsive, and unreflective culture than ours?”
When we give in to sin, and especially any of the seven deadly sins, we are exhibiting weakness. We are showing that we lack self-discipline and that we have little or no self-control or willpower. So, to do battle with the evil one, Catholics, especially young Catholics, need to learn how to be strong-willed and resolute. Instead of giving into passions and becoming self-indulgent, Catholics, and all Christians need to become masters of self-control.
Self-Control vs Self-Indulgence
One of the ‘slogans’ that came out of the Sexual Revolution of the 60s was ‘If it feels good do it.’ A more recent variation of this line is the ad slogan ‘indulge yourself’ that’s used today to sell everything from bath products to chocolate. Self-indulgence – the excessive or unrestrained gratification of one’s own appetites, desires, or whims – has now seemingly turned the idea of self-control into an antiquated notion. Throw in the relativistic thinking that is being taught in our public schools, along with a good dose of high self-esteem, and it’s not that hard to see why morality is now fighting an uphill battle.
So maybe we need to inject some Kung Fu into the Catechesis for our young Catholics – some additional (how about “intense?”) instruction in self-control and willpower. And this instruction in willpower has to begin at home.
A Most Valuable Asset
In a paper published in the Journal of Personality, in August 2014, recapping the results of three studies they conducted on self-control, the authors state:
“Self-control is defined as the ability to override or change one’s inner responses, as well as to interrupt undesired behavioral tendencies (such as impulses) and refrain from acting on them. As such, it is among humankind’s most valuable assets. Individual differences in self-control bear out this value: Low self-control is implicated in a large range of individual and societal problems, including unhealthy eating, lack of exercising, academic failure and underachievement, procrastination, substance abuse, impulse buying, and delinquent behavior.” [Emphasis added.]
If the study had been conducted on behalf of some Christian or Catholic organization, it might also have stated that low self-control is implicated in the tendency to sin. But this “valuable asset” goes largely untapped today. Parents teach their kids to love God and to love their neighbor, to share and be kind to others, but how many parents tell their children that:
“Human virtues are firm attitudes, stable dispositions, habitual perfections of intellect and will that govern our actions, order our passions, and guide our conduct according to reason and faith. They make possible ease, self-mastery, and joy in leading a morally good life. The virtuous man is he who freely practices the good.
“The moral virtues are acquired by human effort. They are the fruit and seed of morally good acts; they dispose all the powers of the human being for communion with divine love” [CCC 1804].
Willpower = Positive Outcomes
Pioneering research psychologist Roy F. Baumeister would probably agree with the Catechism. The author of the book Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength, Baumeister states in the introduction of the book, “When psychologists isolate the personal qualities that predict “positive outcomes” in life, they consistently find two traits: intelligence and self-control.”
The American Psychological Association concurs. An article entitled “What You Need to Know about Willpower: The Psychological Science of Self-Control,” lists these three key points:
- Willpower is correlated with positive life outcomes such as better grades, higher self-esteem, lower substance abuse rates, greater financial security and improved physical and mental health.
- When willpower fails, exposure to an emotionally charged stimulus overrides one’s rational, cognitive system, leading to impulsive actions.
- One’s capacity for self-control appears to be persistent. Children with better self-control as preschoolers tend to have better self-control as adults.
Indeed, in the famous “marshmallow test” (preschoolers are told they can have one marshmallow now or wait 15 minutes and have two marshmallows) conducted in the 1960s by Walter Mischel, PhD, Mischel and his colleagues found that the test subjects who exhibited more willpower as preschoolers retained that same strength of will as teenagers. But,
“. . . the marshmallow study didn’t end there. Recently, B.J. Casey, PhD, of Weill Cornell Medical College, along with Mischel, Yuichi Shoda, PhD, of the University of Washington, and other colleagues tracked down 59 subjects, now in their 40s, who had participated in the marshmallow experiments as children. The researchers tested the subjects’ willpower strength with a laboratory task known to demonstrate self-control in adults.
“Amazingly, the subjects’ willpower differences had largely held up over four decades. In general, children who were less successful at resisting the marshmallow all those years ago performed more poorly on the self-control task as adults.”
Kung Fu Faith Formation
So maybe more parents need to inject some Kung Fu into the faith formation they give their children – some hard training in self-control. Giving up something for Lent is a practice all Catholics should joyfully follow, but willpower and self-control really need to be a 24/7/365 thing. And like most good ‘habits,’ it’s best to start developing self-control at an early age and to constantly reinforce that development – practice it.
But this raises a question. Is it reasonable to expect parents today to instruct their children in how to develop good habits and self-control when they’ve been hearing ‘if it feels good, do it’ and ‘indulge yourselves’ all their lives? In truth, they may need some instruction themselves.
So maybe some kind of ‘train-the-trainer’ course at the parish level in self-control for 20-somethings, 30-somethings, and even 40-somethings is not a bad idea. ‘Virtue signaling’ is kind of thing these days so maybe a two-hour seminar entitled “Virtue Signaling is Out, Virtue Practicing is In” would draw some interest. Perhaps even a senior course for those over 55 is warranted. After all, we do have to overcome all the confused thinking that came out of the Sexual Revolution. We probably also have to overcome 50 years of poor catechesis and perhaps far too many Kumbaya, happy-happy, ‘let’s all just be nice and get along’ sermons, too.
And, just as a final thought, instead of trying to defend our beliefs as Catholics maybe we should go on offense big time. Maybe we should be loudly proclaiming Catholicism as the gold standard for living. It’s not Catholic beliefs that are wrong but the world’s self-indulgence, confused thinking, and lack of self-control that are the real problems in society today.