Myths and Tips for Journeying from Bad to Good Habits
No matter the problem, there's a book for it. Self-help books abound for everything from diets to depression, from exercise to mediation. Be more motivated, think more positive, eat healthier; there's a new expert or a secret for anything and everything. Excel in life in these simple steps! These methods can be useful to a certain point, but they don’t work for everyone. Even when they do work, there’s still something missing.
For Christians, what we seek (or should, at least) is more than a good habit or excellence in living. Although the terms “good habit” and “virtue” are interchangeable in the secular world, they have different connotations in the spiritual life. True, virtue is habitually doing the right thing—but the theological discussion of virtue brings in human nature, grace, redemption, and heaven. Self-help takes on a humbler tone: in seeking virtue, we’re actually trying to follow in the footsteps of Jesus. Just like in the moral life, our goal should be greater union with Him.
We should be building good habits and pursuing virtue as part of our daily lives. It's not something that always gets our attention, however. From my own experience, I have a terrible case of near-sightedness when it comes to virtue. Yes, I’m interested in the virtue of temperance, but when donuts show up in the break room at work, I resolve to start eating better tomorrow. Perseverance in developing virtue is hard!
I offer these reflections and collated insights from others as one who has tried and failed more often than succeeded. One of the keys to the journey is just taking the first step in the right direction. For me, eliminating some misconceptions have been very helpful in starting well.
Striking Out Misconceptions
1) The myth of the all-powerful willpower
A recent podcast from the Art of Manliness website covered the topic of habit building in depth. This myth is a great insight from that episode—a trap that I’ve fallen into many times when trying to overcome a bad habit/vice. If I only had the drive of this person, I'd be in great physical shape right now! Or, if I just had better discipline in my spiritual life like that person, I would've memorized every apologetic question & answer by now. If I was some person other than the one that I am, I would be so much better than I am now.
This is different from moral teaching that we strive to obey and different from an ideal we aspire to. The “imaginary self” is a subtle trick that the evil one plays on us. That imaginary self isn’t grounded in real life. That self is perfect, and the actual self is a fallen creature—imperfect, with weaknesses, having an inclination toward sin. Yet the picture of each human doesn’t begin or end there. It begins with the tremendous dignity bestowed on us, being made in the image and likeness of God. Then it reaches a high point to remember that the sin of our first parents was exactly why Jesus came to redeem us. He offers us His grace, the sacraments, and new life.
The other part of the trap is the word “easy.” Jesus’ redemption of humanity came at a price: the cross. Even those that are self-motivated still have to work hard. Believing that self-motivated people don’t have to work hard at virtue would be like expecting a couch potato to run a marathon. Virtue doesn’t happen overnight, nor does it become indestructible when it’s obtained. It requires constant maintenance and vigilance, no matter who it is.
2) Virtue requires patience, and patience requires suffering
Developing virtue has taken a paradigm shift for me; one that caught me by surprise. I realized I want patience, virtues, and habits to be an abstract thing. I can read a history book, learn about key events, important figures, and even become an expert. I've noticed that I look the same way at virtues, patience, and habits. Developing them looks very comfortable at a distance.
Virtue requires the taming of our natural inclinations. Taming those is impossible without sacrifice. Developing virtue costs something; it has a price. Patience is the virtue that can get us through, but there are few virtues more difficult than patience. The bantering priests at the Catholic Stuff You Should Know podcast covered the topic of patience in a recent podcast—it’s worth a listen. Praying for patience confirms what we’ve all suspected: it is a desire for suffering. They quoted St. Thomas Aquinas’ on the subject: “patience is possible only when the soul loves something good, with a love strong enough to make it bear up under oppressing evils.”
If you’re like most of the human race, patience is difficult. Virtue cannot be effectively pursued without patience and suffering. Hold up that love in the face of oppressing evils.
3) Having & eating cake
Fulton Sheen wisely remarked that saying yes to something entails saying no to other things. When it comes to vice and sin, Jesus doesn’t pat us on the head and tell us to do whatever we want. He detests sin because it harms His children: “if your hand or your foot causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it from you; it is better for you to enter life maimed or lame than with two hands or two feet to be thrown into the eternal fire” (Matthew 18:8). Jesus isn’t proclaiming amputation, but pointing out that we can’t have the spiritual and moral life both ways. What do our actions say? Do we belong to Christ, or are we attached to the sin?
4) I can do this all by myself
Jesus did not design us to fight vice alone. He gave us families, friends, and a church community to share our lives with. Getting into the octagon with a deep-seated vice is doomed to fail if you’re alone. The need for companionship in the battle against vice has another aspect: a means and an end. We really need Jesus and His grace. Not only does He give us the capability to approach Him, but He is, in fact, the destination.
I hope clearing away the misconceptions helps. As I’ve tried to build virtue in my own life, I’ve found it helpful to figure out why I’ve missed the mark. Diagnosing the problem is very important! Some vices have roots that run very deep. With the diagnosis in hand, here are some practical tips toward cultivating virtue.
1) Turn toward the goal
Becoming a better person, becoming more physically healthy, and eating healthier are worthy goals. Each would target a particular weakness. But something glaring is missing. All of these lack a key element: God. Even if an individual has the best of intentions, the goals I listed have the self at the center. For the Christian, virtues have their final end in deeper intimacy with Christ.
We can speak of this in both a positive and negative way. On the positive side, excelling in virtue should open wide the avenues of grace to us. On the negative side, it’s important to remember that vices place barriers between us and God. Wonder why it's harder to get closer to Jesus? Having a hard time connecting with your faith? Part of the puzzle may very well be an entrenched vice.
Even that negative turns to a positive when we bring Christ into the picture. Jesus doesn’t just have the power to forgive our sins, but also the power to heal us. And the intimacy that awaits far exceeds the effort and the suffering that goes along with it!
Any effort that doesn’t begin from a standpoint of humility can never get off the ground. Humility is the hardest virtue to develop; as Fr. Benedict Groeschel once said, once you think you got it, you lost it.
2) Start now
Cold turkey or lukewarm turkey, don’t wait. For one, we do not control the length of our days. There’s a certain urgency that comes along with that when we have the end of our life in mind. Daily growth in the spiritual life also carries an urgency in it; C.S. Lewis points out a different aspect of the urgency of life:
“Good and evil both increase at compound interest. That is why the little decisions you and I make every day are of such infinite importance. The smallest good act today is the capture of a strategic point from which, a few months later, you may be able to go on to victories you never dreamed of. An apparently trivial indulgence in lust or anger today is the loss of a ridge or railway line or bridgehead from which the enemy may launch an attack otherwise impossible” (Mere Christianity, pg. 132).
Don’t underestimate tiny improvements. We don’t always know what virtue God intends for us to develop (all too often it’s patience or humility). St. Paul urged the Corinthians, “working together with him, then, we entreat you not to accept the grace of God in vain. For he says, ‘At the acceptable time I have listened to you, and helped you on the day of salvation.’ Behold, now is the acceptable time; behold, now is the day of salvation” (2 Cor 6:1-2). Now is the moment to start! Don't wait for the right time; don’t wait until you’ve had time to figure things out on your own; don’t wait for the kids to get a little older; don’t wait until you have more free time. The ‘just right time’ doesn’t exist and it prevents you from getting grace now. Take something small and do it until it becomes a small virtue. Progress from small virtues to larger ones.
3) Get ready to struggle
That is meant to sound realistic as opposed to pessimistic; it draws from a few of the points listed above. From the holiest saint to the most wretched sinner, building virtue is hard. It requires daily attention, and the battle will affect all aspects of your person: physical, mental, and spiritual. Expecting anything less is a giant setup for disappointment.
4) Keep the big picture in mind
Virtue is a gift for you, but it's also a gift for those around you. Think how increased patience would benefit your spouse, children, and coworkers; better health would bring joy to your loved ones. Consider virtue as a loan, along the lines of a talent or charism. St. Paul told the Ephesians that the Spirit bestows a variety of gifts on the Body of Christ. “Some should be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers,”—virtues work along the same lines. Some should have temperance, fortitude, and so on. Those offices, St. Paul said, were “for the equipment of the saints, for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ” (Eph 4:11-12). Virtues function the same way. They benefit the individual but are for the Body of Christ as a whole.
5) Use Scripture
Try memorizing Scripture, and repeating it anytime you’re in danger of straying from virtue. This interrupts the temptation with God’s Word on two levels. First, by recalling a memorized verse, we force our mind to occupy itself with something other than the vice presented to us. Second, the Word of God has incredible power; it is not static, but “living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and spirit, of joints and marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart” (Heb 4:12). Pick a series of verses to mentally scroll through, especially if they speak to the vice you struggle against. If you’ve ever memorized lyrics to a song, you can memorize Scripture.
The list of tips has one limitation: they have to be practiced. Cultivating virtue takes a long time, as well as lots of pitfalls. The end result alone makes it worth pursuing virtue but don’t forget: Jesus loves you and He created you to be eternally happy in heaven.