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 year will finally be the year that 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, instead of 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-centered. 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 honoring 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 even a 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 honored, 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 honoring the energies that enflame them and by reordering those energies into a higher love.