Friday, May 25, 2012

On Habit-Forming

 Our pastor gave a sermon illustration a few weeks ago about a man he knew who had been married a long while. (This is my remembered version, so if I get some details wrong, forgive me.) Once, while the pastor was visiting him, he was pouring coffee and accidentally spilled some on the counter. He noticed the man immediately cleaned up the spill, almost without thinking. When the man was a bachelor, he lived a slovenly life and would never have thought twice about leaving it there. When asked about it, he told the pastor that his wife always cleaned up messes quickly to avoid trouble later. Since he and his wife had been living together for so long, the wife's habits had become ingrained in him as well.

The point of the illustration was that if we spend more time with Jesus (praying, studying the Word, etc.), then we will become more like Him. I got that, of course. Still, as I sat there I also realized that my husband probably hasn't picked up many of those types of habits from me, even though we've been married almost ten years. If you've ever been to my house, you know that I struggle with discipline in this area of maintaining order. Housekeeping in general has been a struggle whenever I've lived in more than 100 square feet (camp cabin, dorm room -- those were easier). I still alphabetize and categorize my books, but other, more obvious things just overwhelm me.

So, I've set about on a slow course to become more orderly. I'm realizing it all starts with retraining myself and forming new habits. Good habits. Like cleaning up messes as they happen. Emptying the dishwasher every morning and keeping the sink clean. Paying attention to my children and looking them in the eye when they talk to me. Exercising often. Putting away laundry as soon as it is folded. And, especially, spending time in the Bible first thing in the morning, before the day gets away from me. I used to think that was a silly rule for myself, to say that I HAD to read my Bible early in the morning. However, this past week I've been going back and finishing all the CBS lessons I skipped over the course of the last year. I've come to realize that if it's not my first priority, I probably won't get to it. (So, keep me accountable, please, any real-life friends who read this.)

[Character] doesn't come by accident. It comes through the self-discipline required to do anything in life really well-- to learn a musical instrument, to mend a tractor, to give a lecture, to run an orphanage. Or, indeed, to live as a wise human being. Again and again, when you're working hard at a difficult or complex task, the mind will try to jump away, to focus on something easier or more enticing. And again and again, if you're going to get the job done, you have to force your mind back onto the job and away from the distraction. And the mental muscles you require if you're going to do that have to be trained, just as much as the physical muscles do when you're working up for sustained and strenuous exercise. (This, by the way, is one of the underlying reasons why watching television for hours on end can be such a bad habit. Programs are carefully designed to be enticing and undemanding. They offer "training" in avoiding hard work, in "going with the flow." Which is fine for relaxation, but not for learning the mental habits you need for a fully human existence.)

The above excerpt is from a book I've begun reading which is all about developing Christian virtues and forming character, which is timely. But it's also timely for me as a parent. Over the coming summer months and the next school year especially I want to focus on developing virtuous habits in our children. And, of course, it starts with me! I have to set the example. For myself, I'm starting with Attention and Order. Less TV. More books. Limited Facebook. More household duties as priorities. And an end to my Angry Birds addiction. (I think I may need an intervention on that one.) Lord, give me strength!

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