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The Gospel in Words: Behavior requires change in thinking, doing

How

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

self-mastery."

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

easy."