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Beware the Sirens

Discipline is choosing between what you want now … and what you want most.1

A road diverging in a foggy woods.

It’s been more than thirty years since I read the Odyssey for a literature class in college. The details of the story have faded from my memory, but one passage remains as vivid as ever: Odysseus lashes himself to the mast of his ship in order to resist the incredible lure of the song of the Sirens.

In Greek mythology, the Sirens were beautiful to behold and enchanting to hear. They were dangerous yet beautiful creatures who lured nearby sailors to shipwreck on the rocky coast of their island. A noted British author remarked, “Their song, though irresistibly sweet, was no less sad than sweet, and lapped both body and soul in a fatal lethargy, the forerunner of death and corruption.”2

The sirens are alive and well in our modern era. Their numbers have multiplied beyond count and they are no longer confined to the shores of their island. Modern technology has made Sirens omnipresent and almost infinite in number. Their enchanting song wafts from behind our email screens, Facebook pages, Twitter streams, and whatever technological gadget or app that has your number. Sometimes I find myself drawn to my email inbox in a semi-catatonic state — not sure what what brought me there but unable to look away. The same can be said for the lure of my RSS feeds, my Twitter stream, or one more game of Threes!

Like the sirens of old, our modern day sirens call to us with a song that is sweet and satisfying, but in the end laps both body and soul in a fatal lethargy. Many a productive morning — or day — has evaporated under the enchantment of my sirens. The only defense I have been able to muster is a two-pronged offense:

  1. Get very clear on what I want most.
  2. In every moment, chose what I want most over what I want now.

We are on cruise control most of the time in our lives, unconsciously choosing what we want in the moment, not even realizing we could make a deeper choice. Get clear on what you want most in your life. Then, strap yourself to the mast of your ship if you must, but develop the discipline to choose in every moment what you want most over the endless stream of temptations that you think you want now.

I wish you success!

1 Like so many quotes on the internet, this one is often attributed to Abraham Lincoln. It’s also possible that it should be attributed to Augusta F. Kantral — or someone else entirely. The internet can be funny that way. In any case, it is a profound statement.

2 Walter Copland Perry, “The sirens in ancient literature and art”, in _The Nineteenth Century,_ reprinted in _Choice Literature: a monthly magazine_ (New York) 2 (September–December 1883:163)

Originally published November 30, 2015. Updated July 10, 2019.

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