We move beyond bad habits by recognizing the energy that inflames them
We all have our faults, weaknesses, places where we short-circuit morally,
dark spots, secret and not-so-secret addictions. When we’re honest,
we know how universally true are St. Paul’s words when he writes: “The
good thing I want to do, I never do; the evil thing that I do not want
to do — that is what I do.” None of us are whole, saints
through and through. There’s always something we are struggling
with: anger, bitterness, vengefulness, selfishness, laziness or lack
of self-control (major or minor) with sex, food, drink or entertainment.
And for most of us, experience has taught us that the bad
habits we have are very difficult to break. Indeed, many times we cannot
even find the heart to want to break them, so deep have they become engrained
in us. We bring the same things to our confessor year after year, just
as we break the same New Year’s resolutions year after year. And each
year we tell our doctor that this will finally be the year we lose weight,
exercise more and stick to a healthier diet. Somehow it never works because
our habits, as Aristotle said, become our second nature — and nature
is not easily changed.
So how do we change? How do we move beyond deeply engrained bad habits?
John of the Cross, the Spanish mystic, suggests two paths that can be
helpful. Both take seriously our human weakness and the unyielding strength
of a bad habit inside us.
His first advice is this: it is very hard to root out a
bad habit by trying to attack it directly. When we do this we often end
up unhealthily focused on the habit itself, discouraged by its intransigence,
and in danger of worsening its effect in our lives. The better strategy
is to “cauterize” our
bad habits (his words) by focusing on what is good in our lives and growing
our virtues to the point where they “burn out” our bad habits.
That’s more than a pious metaphor; it’s a strategy for health.
It works this way: Imagine, for example, that you are struggling with
pettiness and anger whenever you feel slighted. Every sincere resolution
in the world has not been able to stop you from giving in to that inclination
and your confessor or spiritual director, rather than having you focus
on breaking that habit, has you focus instead on further developing one
of your moral strengths, for example, your generosity. The more you grow
in generosity, the more too will your heart grow in size and goodness
until you reach a point in your life where there simply won’t be
room in your life for pettiness and childish sulking. Your generosity
will eventually cauterize your pettiness. The same strategy can be helpful
for every one of our faults and addictions.
John’s second counsel is this: Try to set the instinct that lies
behind your bad habit into a higher love. What’s meant by that?
We begin to set an instinct behind a bad habit into a higher love by
asking ourselves the question: Why? Why, ultimately, am I drawn this
way? Why, ultimately, am I feeling this vengefulness, this pettiness,
this anger, this lust, this laziness or this need to eat or drink excessively?
In what, ultimately, is this propensity rooted?
The answer might surprise us. Invariably the deepest root
undergirding the propensity for a bad habit is love. The instinct is
almost always rooted in love. Just analyze your daydreams. There we are
mostly noble, good, generous, big-hearted, whole — and loving, even when in our
actual lives we are sometimes petty, bitter, selfish, self-indulgent
and nursing various addictions. We have these bad attitudes and habits
not because we aren’t motivated by love but because, at this particular
place, our love is disordered, wounded, bitter, undisciplined or self-centred.
But it’s still love, the best of all energies, the very fire of
the image and likeness of God within us.
And so we move to uproot a bad habit in our lives by, first of all, recognizing and honouring the energy that lies beneath it and inflames it. Then we need to reset this energy into a higher framework of love, a wider, less selfish, more respectful, more ordered perspective. And that’s a very different thing than denigration or repression of that instinct.
When we denigrate or repress an instinct this only increases
its power in us and, most often, allows it to wreak an even worse havoc
in our lives. Moreover, when we denigrate or repress an instinct that’s
undergirding a bad habit, we are in fact acting against our own health
and we will then struggle, perhaps only unconsciously but without exception,
to even find the heart to eradicate that bad habit. Energy must be honoured,
even as we struggle to discipline it and set into a healthier framework.
So how do we finally break our bad habits? We do so by honouring the energies that enflame them and by reordering those energies into a higher love.
Rolheiser, theologian, teacher and award-winning author, is president of the Oblate School of Theology in San Antonio, TX. He can be contacted through his website: www.ronrolheiser.com