On Thoughts, Actions, Reactions, and Self-Control

While the idea of controlling (or coercing or manipulating) other people is clearly at odds with the principle of agency, the teachings of the scriptures, and the example of our Heavenly Father, controlling our own selves is very much called for­—but, oh, so difficult. It’s one extremely difficult thing to control our own actions. It’s even more difficult to control our thoughts.

So often, thoughts come into our head, which are negative or harmful—sometimes even consciously unwanted and unwelcome. Sometimes unwanted thoughts come when we’re trying to fall asleep or return to sleep. Sometimes we think negative things about ourselves or are excessively or unfairly critical of ourselves. Sometimes we fill in the blanks of what we don’t know about other people’s actions by ascribing negative motives to them. Sometimes we feel anxious and our heads get full of all manner of unreal “what if” scenarios that make the anxiety even worse. Sometimes we consider sinning in some way (“It won’t hurt if I just tell this one little fib”) or have immoral thoughts flash into our minds. Or maybe anger gets the best of us and we marinade in thoughts of administering “justice.”

Speaking of which, there’s another challenge for us in responding correctly outwardly to the negative emotions that sometimes spontaneously erupt within us. How do I react when somebody says or does something unkind to me? How do I react when a child errs, sins, disobeys, or otherwise disappoints me? How do I react when my spouse frustrates me? How do I react to feelings of selfishness or tiredness or loneliness?

I am very much intrigued by the scriptural statement that says the Savior “suffered temptations but gave no heed unto them.” I am, in fact, in total awe of that. Does it mean that wrong or negative or even sinful thoughts came into his mind but he was able to simply let them pass through him without giving them any attention or even pausing to consider them? Does it mean that he, too, was subject to negative emotions but that he never reacted wrongly to them? My mother reminds me all the time to “Act. Don’t react.” Perhaps the Savior never reacted but always acted—and those actions were motivated by love for others. Perhaps he was always in control. There’s really no “perhaps” about it; he was in control.

I might argue that the greatest gift any of us has is agency. “Acting” means that we stay in control of ourselves enough to make thoughtful, conscious decisions. “Reacting,” at least as my mother has used that term, means conceding or deferring our agency. “Being acted upon” means failing to use our agency altogether. Clearly the goal is to remain in charge of myself and to always act upon thoughtful choices. I have disciplined my children both in “acting” and in “reacting” modes. There is a huge difference! I feel very positive about the former—and very ashamed of the latter.

I have heard President Scoresby talk about Matthew 5 and his thoughts about what the Savior was teaching when He said to turn the other cheek, to walk two miles when compelled to go one, to give up your cloak, too, when already forced to give up your coat. His idea that the Savior is teaching us to remain in charge of ourselves, even when we are being victimized, is helpful to ponder.

Surely, living happily includes controlling myself and not compromising my precious gift of agency. I should like to become much better at this.

Suffering temptation—whether through unproductive thoughts or through emotions that might easily lead my behavior in poor directions—is not going away. Even the Savior suffered temptations (plural). My goal is to learn to give no heed unto them; to let them pass by or pass through; to keep my mind focused on choosing actions—and even thoughts—that will leave me and others in the happiest places possible; to act and not to react or surrender control of myself.  Tough task, but pursuing it is surely a significant part of living after the manner of happiness.

3 responses

  1. Thank you! You are inspired. As I read through this I felt the live of my Heavenly Father surround me. It was a tender mercy. An answer to my prayers. A perfect and timely reminder, and exactly what I needed to hear.

    1. I felt the “love…”

  2. Well said my friend! I should like to become much better at this as well! Thank you for the reminder.

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