The will is an essential survival tool. It could be taught as early as elementary school, so that children become men and women who are able to be autonomous, in control of their own lives, and confident enough to leave a mark. Here we will tackle the will in its most concrete and practical aspects. When activated, it strengthens and regenerates us.
The will is an affirmation of oneself. It may take countless shapes: to find work, to take a bold step toward a new relationship, to ask for a loan, to introduce ourselves to someone who can help us, to travel alone to an unfamiliar country, to report an injustice, to propose and organize cultural activities, and so on. Easy? Difficult? Everything is relative: For some people, a trip of a few miles is like going to the moon. For others, requesting a loan of several million is like a walk in the park.
To train the will, you need to create an exercise that is specific to you. This means you must know the areas of your life that you feel are less strong or complete. The following exercise may help you to restore balance and stimulate efficacy.
Using pen and paper, answer the following questions:
Of the situations in your life that are on hold, which ones would you like to resolve?
The list can be long: an unexpressed apology, an explanation not given, a promise not kept, a friendship left by the wayside, gratitude not communicated; an attic left cluttered, an unpaid debt, a borrowed book not returned; a project half-completed, a trip never taken, a problem not solved. Our life is full of unfinished businesses. Unsettled accounts can drain our psychic energy and sometimes spoil our relations with others. When we complete a commitment we had neglected, we feel lighter.
Does it seem that others try to control your will or take advantage of you?
The most direct way to develop the will in such cases is to affirm it. When we let someone dictate the rules in our life, we become accomplices, and a dangerous habit of inequality takes hold in the relationship. Reflecting on this will bring to light any areas of your life where you could better affirm your will. The secret is to do so without anger or the wish for revenge, but in a manner that is kind and clear, and therefore stronger.
Which acts or attitudes would you like to reduce or get rid of?
Inhibition is the capacity to stop an act before it happens: we feel the urge to pass unsolicited judgment; to make an offensive wisecrack; to buy a useless item; to smoke one more cigarette. And we choose to say no. The capacity to inhibit is healthy. Contrary to repression, which is an unconscious act, it is done with awareness. At times it helps us conserve our energy. Or save our lives.
Is there any habit you would like to activate?
A habit is a series of acts that have been assimilated in such a way as to take place without special effort or attention. To activate new positive and useful habits takes time. At first this is a conscious act of will. Later it becomes a natural part of our life.
What are you afraid to do—or to be?
If you had no fear, or shyness, or terror, what would you do that you are not doing now? What initiatives would you take if you had a bit more courage—and a bit less reverential fear? This is tricky terrain. It may involve moving out of your comfort zone. Exploring it can unleash much energy.
What new initiatives would you like to start?
Everything begins with an act of will. What would you like to undertake in your life? To start a new sport, research a subject, travel, meet someone, practice meditation, write an autobiography, learn a language, reconnect with a distant relative? The longest road begins with the first step, and the first step can be merely a small one.
At this point, you have a fair amount of material in your hands. On the basis of your answers, write a list of possible acts of will that you may accomplish over the course of each day—acts that are neither too easy nor too hard; for some you may need to rub up against your own inertia, but never so much as to make you give up before starting. For example, not watching television, not eating junk food, taking care of a commitment you have long put off, making an unpleasant phone call, chewing your food properly and tasting what you eat, going to bed half an hour earlier, walking instead of driving, not reading the gossip column in the papers.
Once you have made the list, glance at it in the morning, and choose two or three acts of will for that day. Even one is enough. No exaggeration, please, or you risk indigestion. In any case, once you have embarked on this kind of idea, during the day you will find more and more chances for new acts of will. Everyday life can become a school of freedom.
Excerpted from Your Inner Will: Finding Personal Strength in Critical Times by Piero Ferrucci. © 2014 by Piero Ferrucci. Published by Jeremy P. Tarcher, an imprint of Penguin, a division of Penguin Group USA, a Penguin Random House Company.