often have we heard, or ourselves said, "Well, that's just the way I
am?"The older we get the more inclined we are to say or feel this, and
not just to rationalize bad behaviors. That is because in a certain
sense "that's just the way I am" is true.
The important question is how do we come to be what we are? Was it
inevitable? Are we really born that way? Is it predestined? Can we
change or be changed from "what we are?"
I once heard a thoughtful person say, "what you are at any given
point in your life is the sum total of your thoughts to that point."My
reaction was negative. Some are richer than others. Some have greater
opportunities for education. Some have better health. Some have higher
IQ's.So there are certain differences in our material and physical
circumstances, but even people relatively similarly situated have very
different behaviors.What we really are, then, stems from our choices
as to how we react to and what patterns of thought we develop in
connection with whatever circumstances we find ourselves in.
Aristotle taught that "moral excellence" comes from practicing
virtuous habits. "Not one of the moral virtues comes to be in us merely
by nature. The virtues come to be in us neither by nature, nor despite
nature, but we are furnished by nature with a capacity for receiving
them and are perfected in them through (habit)."Aristotle also notes
that our habitual reaction to circumstances begins early in our youth
and, as such, has an increasing influence on each of our subsequent
choices to the point that these embedded choices seem to be natural.
"Again, it grows up with us all from infancy, so it is a hard matter to
remove from ourselves this feeling, ingrained as it is into our very
life." — Aristotle.
An important step in the change process, then, is the awareness that
our possession or lack of "moral virtues" is habitual. Aristotle points
out that courage or "self-mastery" (and I would add anger among many
others) are consequences of habitual responses. One writer uses the
image of going down a hill on a sled. The first time it is easy to
create a track in the soft snow. "But should we choose the same path a
second or third time, tracks will start to develop, and soon we will
tend to get stuck in a rut — our route will now be quite rigid, as neural
circuits, once established, tend to become self-sustaining." — Norman
Doidge, "The Brain that Changes Itself."
These "self-sustaining" tracks become rooted in the non-conscious
part of our brain that exercises enormous power over our conscious
behavior.Simply telling ourselves we need to change a particular
behavior cannot overcome the immensely strong pull of this part of our
brain that has been formed over a long period of time as a consequence
of our choices and actions.
Once we recognize the massive effect of habit, "the first step to
changing our nonconscious inclinations is to change our behavior" —
Timothy Wilson, "Strangers to Ourselves." Some have called this the "as
if principle." That is if we act, meaning do things as though we had a
different habit, over time we will gravitate to the new habit or
behavior.Aristotle taught that "the virtues we get by first performing
single acts of working . . . exactly so, by doing just actions we come
to be just; by doing the actions of self-mastery we become perfected in
Kurt Vonnegut captured the essence of this. "We are what we pretend
to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be."This is not
necessarily disingenuous.Our non-conscious mind will only respond to
our imagination or desires if they are backed by actions.Wilson notes
that "by acting in ways that are helpful and caring to others, we will
come to view ourselves as more helpful and caring people."
Finally, real change comes only after persistent action. Wilson
quotes William James, "the more frequently people perform a behavior,
the more habitual and automatic it becomes, requiring little effort or
conscious attention." Or, "that which we persist in doing soon becomes