When I was a freshman in high school we had to write an essay in order to get into Honors English the following year. The topic was: “How humans want habit and routine to help them in life.” I remember hating this topic.
I hated the idea that the teacher assumed we would agree with the premise that we want life built around routine. I didn’t. Like Thoreau I wanted to live deliberately, not like the drones I saw who would sleepwalk through life. I fancied myself a non-conformist. I saw all of our school traditions (rallies, retreats, dances, etc) as blind devotion to a thoughtless system. We did things because we had always done them that way.
I could even see that in everyday life. We went to church on Sunday because that’s just what we did. We went to the mall afterwards because that just what we did.
That life seemed to lack so much spontaneity and excitement. Shouldn’t I want to go to Church? Shouldn’t I want to be excited about homecoming at school? If I wasn’t, was I not being a hypocrite for participating when I didn’t feel it?
Anyway, that’s what my 13-year-old self thought. Now that I have gotten older and the harsh hands of experience battered me around, I can now see more of the wisdom I missed when I was younger.
Habits are important. In fact, for the great philosopher Aristotle, they are everything. Most moral philosophies focus on actions: “Is it morally okay to do x?” “Is it morally wrong to do y?”
Aristotle was less interested in the action but on the person. For him, your actions only matter inasmuch as they affect you as a person. And the way that action affects you is by increasing or decreasing in you a habit.
Habits aren’t onetime events in our lives. They shape our lives. Think about a nice small patch of fresh dirt. If you pour water over it, it will splash all around the area. But next time, take your finger and trace a path down the middle. Then do it a few dozen more times. Soon you will see that you have carved a depressed path. Pour the water over the area again and you will find that much of it collects into the depression and flows from one end to the other.
When we do something habitually, our lives take shape around it. We carve out our pathways to action. Like the water, the more we’ve built up a habit the more we can direct our actions without thinking about it.
My wife and I have dinner every night together. A while ago, we happen to have some cookies left over from a party. So I had some for desert after dinner. And then I did it again the next night. And the next. Now, I don’t even think about it, but after dinner I assume I’m going to eat a cookie. If I eat dinner and I don’t get a cookie after, I get sad. It isn’t even that I’m hungry. It’s that habit has directed me towards it and if I don’t, then I feel like I’m missing something.
And good habits are supposed to make life easier. When I was in high school, I ate fast food whenever I could. I love McNuggets. I would buy them by the 20-pack. I remember once my brother and sister and I went there and bought 40 nuggets and just scarffed them down. But then for a few months I stopped going to McDonald’s. For the first few weeks I won’t lie, I was jonesing for some of that McGoodness to enter my McBelly. But then after a few months, not only did I resist the desire, but I found that I had completely lost my taste for it.
Habits have that power. In morality, they are especially potent. St. Francis was someone who was very attached to his material things. But then after having a conversion to the Lord, he began giving things away. By the constant habit, charity became normal for him and greed in his soul atrophied and died.
If a bank truck dumped a pile of untraceable gold onto the street in front of us and no one was around, many of us would be tempted to take it for ourselves. I’m not saying we would do it, but we would sure have heck feel the strong pull of gold’s luster.
Not Francis. He wouldn’t think twice about returning it to its rightful owner. Why? Because the habit of honesty and non-material attachment had directed his thoughts, feelings, and actions to that good end. It wasn’t a struggle for him, because of the habit.
Human beings are broken. We have an attraction to things that are bad for us. We constantly wrestle with our pride, greed, lust, anger, laziness, vanity, and gluttony. And we are so weak we often give in to these temptations. Good habits are like a solid cast around a broken leg. The cast is a framework that creates an environment in the leg that allows it to be healed correctly. Bad habits are like bad casts. If the cast is not straight and aligned, the bone will malform and weaken the person.
I have a lot of bad habits, and my life is poorer for it.
But I have also tried to build up good habits. Particularly, I have tried to do this in my prayer life.
I don’t know what prayer is like for you, but for me it takes a lot of effort. I get distracted so easily and I often turn to some distraction before I turn to the Lord. So with the help of my wife, I have set a cast of habitual prayer to help set straight my soul.
Every morning I fall on my knees and thank God for the new day and for dying on the cross for my sins. I then surrender my day to the Holy Spirit. This is followed by prayers for blessings on those who are in special need.
On the way to work I pray the Chaplet of Divine Mercy. Before I arrive I call my wife and we pray the Our Father, Hail Mary, Glory Be and the intercession of the saints.
At work I take 15-30 minutes of chapel time.
In the evening, my wife and I pray the Rosary, the Chaplet for the Unborn, and the novena to Sts. Ann and Joachim.
And then in the evening I do an examination of conscience.
Looking back on what I have just written, I feel embarrassed. People may think I am trying to brag over how much time I spend in prayer. But that is not the point. I’m writing all of this out not say that I am holy, but to show you how much I need to do to my soul it get it in even semi-decent shape.
In all honesty, of all that time in prayer, I might have a good 5 minutes truly with the Lord. As I wrote, I get distracted so easily. I’ll be in the middle of praying the rosary and start thinking about writing my review for Argo and how Ben Affleck would be a good Batman like my blog poll said, which reminds me that I should check on how the current poll is doing so I can write my next article, but only after I finish grading the papers that my students turned in, even though they don’t use spell-check, which I would have if I had it back when I was in high school, but I only had a Magnavox word-processor/printer that only worked some of the time… And the next thing I know, the rosary is over.
So if my mind wanders, does that mean I should stop praying? No. The only reason I have even the smallest spark of a spiritual life is because the habits, these routines, have made it possible for me to experience God in my prayer life. Maybe you are different and can spontaneously enter into union with God. I need all the help I can get.
Good habits hold things together. Most adults are not friends with their buddies from high school. I am. I have friends that I have known since grade school, high school, and college days. One of the ways we’ve been able to hold everything together is that every Sunday, we get together for dinner.
Sometimes it’s that simple.
If someone’s out of town we play Halo or Starcraft or something once a week. Each appointment is like another dash of the needle and thread that sews the fabric of our lives together.
Of course habit is not enough.
I should build habits of charity, faith, generosity, temperance, etc not for the sake of simply building up the habits. I build up the habits so that it becomes easier to give love. St. Teresa the Little Flower understood that while habits create a solid framework for action, are works only take on eternal meaning if we act with great love.
And that is habit’s true force.