Overcoming our bad habits often requires removing the element of choice. We make a commitment to not do the bad habit anymore, and thus the choice is already made and doesn’t have to be made again.
But then, a little later, we make an exception and indulge in the habit. Or perhaps we decide that we will engage in the behavior to some degree, if not all the way. At this point we have created the option to do the behavior to some extent if the conditions are right. So now it becomes a matter of judgment again. The borders have been blurred, and from that point on, we must debate whether each successive situation warrants getting to indulge in the bad habit again or not. Thus, our bad habit has once again become a matter of choice. And this is why we give up on our commitments shortly after making them.
We should set our commitments, refuse to make exceptions, and remove the element of choice.
In my last post I said that if are unsure whether your negative behavior qualifies as an “addiction,” simply make a sincere commitment to stop doing it. I’ll further add that when you do, be sure to consider the usual excuses people give for giving up their resolutions and promise yourself that you won’t give in to any of those pitfalls. Promise yourself that you won’t ever say “well this next time will be the last time.” Commit to never say “I’ll make the change when I hit this next milestone in my life.” Assure yourself that you won’t be dissuaded by situations or friends. Acknowledge that the desire to do this behavior will rise again and resolve that you won’t give in to it even so.
And if you feel like you don’t agree with one of these commitments, then have an honest conversation with yourself about why not. Perhaps you want to stop overdrinking but not drinking altogether. Perhaps you want to commit to eating healthy when on your own but also want to leave the door open to getting a burger with friends. Perhaps you don’t want to keep viewing pornography after you’re married, but you figure in the meantime it isn’t hurting anyone.
If you find yourself making such concessions, then I would advise still making the commitment to cut the behavior out entirely, but you can make it temporary if you’d like. Say that you won’t do the behavior, not even for any of your usual exceptions, for three months. After that, after you’ve proven whether you can have your indulgence or leave it entirely at your own whim, then you’ll know whether you’re in control of the situation or not.
Many people attempt to do exactly this and are shocked to find that the future version of themselves goes entirely off rails from what they had previously decided. They come to realize that there are two persons living inside of them, one who is calm, in control, and rational, and another who throws all that out the window in a moment of impulse. We often make the mistake that addicts are always addicts. Sometimes that is the case, but more often I would say that addicts are only addicts some of the time. Because of this fact, the majority of addicts actually don’t know that they are ones until they try the sort of test that I described above. Nothing proves whether you are a prisoner than when you see if you can open the door to get out. It is sincerely trying to stop, and utterly failing to do so, that one becomes convinced that they really have an addiction.
Or, at least, this is the point where some become convinced that they have an addiction. Even after all this, some will try to write off their failure as a fluke, as a result of improper commitment or methodology. They remain convinced that they really are their own master, they just need to have the right approach in swearing off their troublesome behavior.
Very well, let them try again and again, by all manner of different methodologies. Let them read and employ every self-help book that promises to give them full control of self. Let them have as many failures as is required to finally surrender and say that they are a lost cause.
If at any point they do manage to break free, and permanently, then well enough. They have proven something to themself and they have managed to right their ship. But in my experience, it is very much the minority of people that will ever achieve this. Most often, by the time one even begins to wonder whether they have an addiction or not, the shackles are already thick and heavy.
Your Common humanity)
It might seem a shameful and discouraging thing to learn that you are a slave to your behavior. You might feel that that classifies you as the very worst of humanity, but nothing could be further from the truth. If you felt so sure that your vices were only minor indiscretions, and then discovered that they were addictions run amuck, you can be sure that there are untold billions for whom this pattern holds as well. In fact, you are in a more elevated minority simply by having come to accept the truth of yourself. Most people choose to remain completely self-deluded.
The fact is none of us get a free pass in this life. Either some tremendous hardship, or addiction, or both will take us all. We each will be broken by something that we cannot control. The fact that you don’t have the power over your own behaviors only means that you are human. Along with learning that you are no better than the rest of us, also be sure that you are no worse.
Or, perhaps, even after testing your resolve and finding it lacking you still feel anxious about the label of “addict.” Perhaps you acknowledge that you have a problem, that is it out of your control, but you still have some bias that prevents you from describing that problem as an addiction. Tomorrow we will begin examining the semantics of it, and the social influences that cause us to shun these labels.
Yesterday I shared about the broken and divided foundation that is exposed in a marriage when a secret addiction is brought to light. Every positive experience from the past was at least somewhat predicated upon a lie. Every good and decent thing that the addict ever did is tarnished.
And not only is the past thrown into disarray, but also the present and the future. I pointed out how even the most sincere and genuine acts of kindness from the now-truthful addict can be a trigger to his wife, reminding her of all the false and manipulative overtures he made in the past. Yes, today his actions might be blameless, but they are linked in her memory to the actions that were not.
Thus, the husband trying to repair the marriage with acts of goodness is like trying to fix a crumbling building by stacking new floors on top of it. Those new floors might be sound and whole, the very finest of design, but their added weight is only going to hasten the collapse and soon the whole thing will come down, good and bad parts alike.
The addict and his wife are stuck in a situation where anything they do to try and prop up the falling structure only sets off more problem areas. Finally, they might realize that they have to stop trying to save a fundamentally ruined structure. And, counter-intuitively, that might just be the thing they need to save their marriage.
I have known many couples in recovery that just admitted that their marriage had failed, stepped back from the problem, and watched it collapse at their feet. And then they started talking about how to build a new one. They realized that they could start the relationship over from scratch. They could pour a new foundation there at ground zero.
The old marriage vows were now a sham, they had been broken to the point of losing all meaning. So rather than trying to revitalize them, why not renounce them for the empty promises that they were and make all-new commitments instead? The couple’s memories are marred by the Jekyll-and-Hyde performance of the addict weaved through them all. So why not accept that those memories’ former luster has been lost and start making new ones instead?
It can be such a relief to realize that you don’t have to solve this architectural problem at all. You don’t have to marry two opposite realities together. You can instead assign all that was flawed and broken to the past and all that is hopeful and good to the future.
Some of the couples I have known that made this discovery bought new rings, had a new vow ceremony, and started counting their anniversary from the day they recommitted themselves to one another. It might sound like a strange thing to do, it certainly goes out of the normal convention, but really why not? It is an irregularity that is more congruent with life as they were experiencing it. Perhaps they didn’t realize it at the time, but so much of their confusion was because they were trying to fit stereotypes of love and marriage that didn’t fit their situation. There’s nothing to say that you can’t and shouldn’t alter the signs and symbols of love and marriage to match the one that you actually have before you.
In Due Time
Before I close off this topic, I must point that none of the couples in our recovery group took this step on day one. It would have been hugely premature to say, “let go of the past and hold on to now,” when “now” was still totally enmeshed with the “past.” Most of us addicts were still learning how to even live soberly from day-to-day, and it wouldn’t do to make new marriage vows that wre then broken a second and a third time.
It is prudent to wait until you are actually ready to live the new life before you make a solemn symbol of it. Better to not start pouring the new foundation until you have learned the fundamentals of architecture. Better to not say it is for real this time until you really mean it. And not only that you mean it right now in this moment, but you know that you will still mean it tomorrow.
Put another way, it is good to commit to the better future, but neither of you can do that until you are first ready to totally let go of the past.
For March my intention was to have a resurgence in saying a prayer and then doing the first good thing that came to mind, all to invite God’s spirit into my life. I also set a reminder on my phone, just to be sure that I didn’t forget what goal I was actually supposed to be working on.
And I did remember my goal, and I did try to implement it throughout the month, but if I’m being completely honest I was pretty halfhearted in my efforts. I believe that when the initial excitement of a new ritual fades, if I haven’t established a regular routine to carry me through the doldrums, it then becomes a monotony to keep carrying forward. That’s exactly what happened here.
In other words, I struggle in the department of making small, lasting changes to my life. And while I know I must continue to rely on grace for my heart to be truly changed, I also believe that a person is capable of carrying out one small improvement after another until they have become something greater than what they once were.
To be sure, I have been able to make some real, lasting changes in the past. This whole blog is one of those changes, and through it I have had the most regular scripture study of my life. But where that particular change was a success, many others have fallen to the wayside, including this one of a pray-and-do-something-good ritual.
So I stopped to consider where the weak link is in that pray-and-do-something-good ritual, and I realized it was in the very first step. The fact is I have had some heartfelt, meaningful prayers in my life, but never as a regular practice. I am too often distracted, or self-conscious, or anxious about getting on to other things in my day.
There’s no need to reinvent the wheel here. One of the foundational pillars of spiritual practice has always been prayer, and that is one area that I have been consistently lacking. So I will make this month’s commitment very simple: to pursue deep, meaningful prayer on a consistent basis. I still like the idea of my pray-and-do-something-good ritual, but I need to exercise myself in its first half before the whole thing can be complete.
Now in order to have more meaningful prayers there are two specific aspects of prayer that I will be working on. The first is praying out loud. Whenever I pray out loud I am more able to connect to the moment. I am very self-conscious about it, though, and so that it means taking the time to find a private place where I am unlikely to be overheard. This will be easier in some places than in others. While I am at work will be particularly tricky, and I’m going to have to spend some time figuring out a solution there.
The other aspect I will be focusing on is to remove the temptation to finish my prayers quickly so that I can get on to the rest of my day. I am in such a rush to take care of all my errands and hobbies that I forget that they will be performed better if I have taken the time to set my foundation first. I want to get into the habit of putting the rest of the world on hold when it is time to be with God, not the other way around.
On May 1st I’ll let you know how this journey is going. I will let you know how I did at finding secret closets to pray aloud, I will let you know how I did at setting aside the to-do lists that distract me from the moment, and I will let you know how my prayers are shaping up as a result.
Well…I’m feeling very embarrassed as I write this review for last month’s commitment. There were a few times this month that I realized I had slipped from my commitment and tried to refresh it. But I did so from my memory of what that commitment was, and just now as I sat down to write this review I realized that I had been remembering it incorrectly!
I was remembering January’s commitment: doubling down on two-hour check-ins to ground myself to the moment. Which is still a great practice, and one that I do want to continue with, but that’s just not the commitment I actually made for February!
For February I had wanted to establish a ritual of prayer and then doing the first good thing I could think of. The intention was to pair my faith with action, and thus invite God’s spirit into my life. I had wanted to do this every morning, every time I changed my setting, and whenever I had felt like I had slipped from my spiritual connection.
But given that I didn’t even remember this commitment, I really didn’t follow it.
Well, I’ll just try it again. I knew this practice would take some time to become regular habit. Missteps on the path of improvement were to be expected. The proper way forward is to pick myself up, dust myself off, and continue as before.
So for March I will be renewing my commitment for February. I am going to pair it with a new reminder, though. I have set an alarm on my phone that will go off every Monday and instruct me to go and read my commitment, just to be sure that I am remembering the plan correctly and acting on it.
On April 1st I’ll let you know how I did at actually remembering the commitment, how I did at performing it, and what I saw as a result of doing so.
For January I recommitted to regular, two-hour checkins to ground myself and to refresh my efforts to live as my best self. Throughout the month I found a great deal of vitality enter my spiritual life through this practice.
During this month I also shared an epiphany that I had through the process. I had been striving to invite God’s help, but not following it with an immediate effort to do some small, good thing. Over the past weeks I have tried to correct this by beginning a new ritual where I invoke God’s help, but then pair that request by doing whatever my conscience is currently prompting me to do. It is usually a small thing, and many times I don’t understand what good is even going to be accomplished by it, but it just feels right so I do it. There is a strong sense in this of putting an offering on the altar, giving a small sacrifice to deepen the sincerity of my intentions.
Just this last week I had a moment where I was already feeling tired and depleted, but I knew the right thing was to start playing with my children. I paused to ground myself, prayed for God to come into my heart and make me alive for the task, and then paired that request with my own effort to invent a new game to play with them. And as I was in the process of giving what little I could, I felt the vitality flowing back into my heart and I was able to really lean into the moment and have a wonderful time with my children.
I want to keep chasing experiences like that.
And so this new ritual will be my guide during the month of February. I will start every day with this pattern of prayer and doing the first good thing I can think of. I will do it again each time I change my setting, such as when arriving at work or back at home. I will do it any time that I realize I am slipping into an autopilot mode of apathy and distractedness.
My goal is to make this practice become the new baseline for me. I want to repeat it so many times that it becomes routine, as standard a part of life as studying the scriptures became through doing this blog. This is the next step in my permanent development.
As with any lifestyle change, I assume this will take a lot of work and a lot of recommitment to really stick. So I’m approaching it with the mindset that this a long term effort, not just an exercise for February. In future months my checkin will likely be to modify this commitment as necessary and refresh my resolve to it. Come back at the start of March to hear how it’s going.
For December I wanted to embrace a mentality of bounty and gratitude. My commitment was to pause each day and recognize the goodness that I have all around me.
And so I tried to pause each day, and pick out a different thing I had that brought good things into my life. I considered the car that I drive to work each day, the family I come home to each night, the creative ideas I enjoy, my good health, and the ability to get the things I need and want.
I even had an entire series on this blog that was based around recognizing the good things that are given universally to us all, such as the variety of the earth, the healing potential of our hearts, and our innate desire to improve our world.
I’m sorry to say that I forgot about this goal for about half of the month, though, and I need to figure out a better process for reminding myself of it between these check-ins.
But I did find a deep sense of peace on the days that I did remember it. There was just a strong sense of “I’m really in a good place, and things are going to be okay.” I can conclude that stopping to count my blessings from time-to-time is a healthy, grounding practice, and I want to continue with it.
Of course January is often seen as a time of new beginnings, a time to recommit to self-improvement. I thought that fitting, because honestly I’ve been feeling a bit anxious about heaping too many to-do list items on myself with these monthly commitments.
So instead, I am going to double down on a commitment that I put in place during a previous month, but which I have lately become lax on. I am referring to my practice of two-hour check-ins to ground myself and set intentions for the next part of the day.
My days are better when I break them down into smaller portions and when I focus on doing right things in the moment, rather than procrastinating them to a later hour. Taking a break to connect to myself used to sound like a luxury that I couldn’t afford, but it makes me more present and more effective at everything else I need to do. And one of the things I will be adding to my pool of grounding exercises will be reflecting on the wonderful bounty I have all around me.
I’ll let you know how this recommitment goes for January at the start of next month. Here’s one New Year’s resolution that I don’t intend to give up on!
For November I wanted to get curious about my relationship with food. I want to know that part of me, and understand the reasons behind my behaviors. With other habits, I have learned that I usually have a very understandable reason for my misguided behavior. And correcting the misguided behavior without first accounting for the wound or fear that it is protecting can be quite traumatic.
And so I did some introspection this month, and I made a few important discoveries.
First off, I have “deprivation thinking.” In other words, I’m worried about there not being enough to go around, and thus having to hurry to get as much as I can. It’s not hard to imagine how I might have come across this pattern of thinking. I grew up in a family of eleven, and if one wasn’t quick the jar of cookies might be empty before you even got one!
Secondly I’ve realized that I just want to be satisfied. Some days I just want to eat a dessert that’s a perfect 10. But if I don’t have that available, then I’ll try and eat two 5s to reproduce that same experience. Obviously it doesn’t work that way, and I would be better off to go and get the one 10 instead of compensating for it with volume.
Thirdly, food is a checklist. When we buy things from the grocery store I have a sense of having invested money into it and needing to get that money’s worth. I am mortified at the thought of any going to waste. When grocery shopping is compounded with receiving extra food during the holidays, it becomes overwhelming trying to eat it all.
And lastly, food is a stimulus. If I ever feel hurt or distressed, I grow numb. And then when I’m numb, I want to feel alive again. Waking up one’s heart naturally can be hard, though, and it is tempting for all of us to rely on easier stimuli instead. Thus we turn to overeating, heavy media use, lust, extreme spending, and other destructive behaviors.
I don’t believe this list is exhaustive, but I do believe these are all very real reasons for why I have built such an unhealthy relationship with food.
So I want to start teaching myself to appreciate the bounty of the earth and the resources I’ve been personally blessed with. I want to build in myself a surety that I can take care of my needs and wants. I want to teach myself these things so that I stop being afraid of missing out and so that I don’t need to compensate for mediocrity with more mediocrity.
And it isn’t enough to just look myself in the mirror, say it once, and have my entirely frame of mind changed forever. I gained these patterns subconsciously over an extended period of time. It may take some reinforcing for this message to really sink in.
So for December I am going to recite a few mantras each day, and call out specific examples of the bounty all around me. I am going to try to reach a point of gratitude each day for all the things I already have, that I don’t need to do any further effort to secure.
I am also going to acknowledge that sometimes I am rooting for a pearl among the trash, and I will try to call out these moments as they occur. When they do, I will stop, and give myself permission to go find an actual pearl instead.
For I know the thoughts that I think toward you, saith the Lord, thoughts of peace, and not of evil, to give you an expected end. Then shall ye call upon me, and ye shall go and pray unto me, and I will hearken unto you. And ye shall seek me, and find me, when ye shall search for me with all your heart.
If thou wilt return, O Israel, saith the Lord, return unto me: and if thou wilt put away thine abominations out of my sight, then shalt thou not remove.
Then shall ye call upon me, and I will hearken unto you. And ye shall seek me, and find me, when ye shall search for me with all your heart. Yesterday I considered how God plays the long game, patiently waiting for us to return to Him by our own volition. And frankly, this is a very hard thing that he expects us to do. Arguably the work of returning to God is the most difficult we do in this life. The way back is through repentance, sometimes-painful self-examination, the mourning of wounds both inflicted and received, the overcoming of our powerful vices, and the healing of doubts and fears. And again, He expects us to enroll ourselves in this process. He still adamantly refuses to make that choice for us. And…we do it. Nowhere is the nobility of God’s children more clear in how we commit ourselves to this most grand endeavor. As this verse suggests, we search for Him with all our heart. We call, we seek, we put in what it takes to come back home.
If thou wilt return, return unto me: then shalt thou not remove. And the genius of this plan is that it means when we come back to God, we come back firmly! Satan’s methods might procure more immediate results, but God’s procure lasting ones. We all leave God once, but once we return with our whole heart, it is very few that ever leave Him again.
And see that all these things are done in wisdom and order; for it is not requisite that a man should run faster than he has strength. And again, it is expedient that he should be diligent, that thereby he might win the prize; therefore, all things must be done in order.
For precept must be upon precept, precept upon precept; line upon line, line upon line; here a little, and there a little:
And see that all these things are done in wisdom and order It is not requisite that a man should run faster than he has strength Line upon line, line upon line; here a little, and there a little I greatly appreciate the pragmatism in these verses. There is sincerely committing to improving ourselves one step at a time, and there is overextending ourselves with unrealistic promises. When we start to feel the reality of God manifesting in us it is a very exciting experience, and we can easily get carried away with all the good things we intend to do. In a moment of rapture we might very well promise God everything. We will be His perfect, faithful child now, never to stray again. And in that moment we fully believe we can deliver on such a promise. To be fair, if we were to maintain that same state of rapture forever, we probably really could keep that promise, too! But we don’t…and we don’t. No, after each spiritual awakening there follows an awakening back to the old us. And it is that old us that needs to be changed. And that change is not accomplished by demanding perfection at once, but by line upon line. Yes, demand change of yourself, but also be practical about it!