Developing Willpower – Sir Henry Morton Stanley

December 26, 2011

I hope you had a great day yesterday celebrating the birth of Jesus and all that means to us. It was a wonderful day for our family.

A gift my daughters gave to me was a subscription to the Smithsonian magazine. One article in the magazine focused on Henry Morton Stanley who was the African explorer that became famous for finding the Scottish missionary Dr. Livingstone. Stanley had such an iron will that some Africans called him Bula Matari which means “Breaker of Rocks”. However, the article is really about willpower and uses Stanley as an example.

The authors contend that willpower is a resource that can be renewed or depleted, protected or wasted. They found that Stanley did not have an indomitable will, but rather understood its limitations as well as strategies to strengthen his will.
He understood precommitment – locking yourself into a virtus path recognizing that you will face temptations and that you are weak. Precommitment makes it almost impossible to leave the path you have chosen.

Stanley did things that might seem a tad odd in that in the midst of awful conditions in the African bush. Every morning he would always shave and always dressed neatly. He said that this strengthened his self-discipline and self-respect. Experiments have confirmed Stanley’s belief – the imposing of external order does indeed strengthen inner self-discipline. It helps to conserve willpower.

Also, focusing on lofty thoughts or goals strengthens our willpower. If you focus more on the why of a matter than the how, you will tend to pass up a quick reward now for something greater in the future. As the article points out, this is one reason people of faith tend to score higher in the area of self-control.

Stanley also knew that self-control was about much more than the self. Self-control is  critical in redirecting us away from selfish behavior so that we are better able to serve others.

As Christians we have access to One who can help us in this area of willpower. We do have a much loftier goal in life that helps us to see beyond the short-lived benefits of instant gratification. We just need to embrace fully our Lord and to walk in communion with Him and seek His grace to have the strength to what we ought to do.

BG