by Eric Bonetti
Habits. The very word has a certain negative connotation. Images come to mind of the obnoxious coworker who loudly cracks her gum for hours on end. Or the neighbor who too often says, “You won’t mind doing this, will you?” when it comes unpleasant volunteer roles.
Clearly, some habits are counterproductive.
But what makes habits particularly tricky is that they are sneaky. All too often, they creep up on us silently, slipping unnoticed into the very fabric of our being, becoming part and parcel of who and what we are.
So how can we put habits to good use? Is there a way to have our habits help us grow in faith?
I believe habits indeed can help us grow in faith, and here are five habits that I think can be particularly helpful.
Make Faith a Habit
I’ve long suspected that the real reason for the decline in church attendance is not any great theological shift, or any loss of relevance. Instead, it’s that our modern, connected society offers many more activities and options than was the case 40 years ago.
Not convinced? A 2010 University of Michigan survey showed that Americans exaggerate how often they attend church by 10 – 18 percent. To me, that suggests that Americans think going to church is something they want to do. It just all too often falls by the wayside, crowded out by too many conflicting demands.
My personal experience suggests that this is the case. As I think about friends in my own parish, I can think of many who clearly enjoy being part of the church community and derive benefit from it, yet are rarely seen in church because they were “tired” or “busy” when Sunday rolled around,
So whether it’s church, prayer, contemplation, or service to others, the best way to make it happen is to make it a habit.
Mindfulness, the Buddhist teaching of deliberately growing in awareness of our connection to others, the world around us, and seeking to grow in care for others in the course of our ordinary actions, is a habit too little practiced in the Christian faith.
Consider the all too common situation in parish life, where a priest or lay leader is loving, kind, and caring, yet lacks awareness of how his or her decisions affect others. These situations can be remarkably difficult to resolve, because one party often concludes that there is a lack of respect (which may well be the case), while the other doesn’t even know that there is an issue.
Judaism implicitly also recognizes the importance of day-to-day transactional activity in one’s spiritual growth, treating all of life as sacramental in nature.
So, recognizing that the little things in life are the building blocks of big things, develop the habit of asking yourself, “How will my decision affect others?” if you want to grow the spark of the divine within you.
Pick your habits carefully
Some years ago, at the suggestion of an elderly and very wise Quaker friend, I developed a list of things that I wanted to do on a daily basis–habits, if you will. Next to each item, I put the time I thought I should spend on each thing: 10 minutes of utter stillness, 20 minutes of prayer, 1 hour of exercise. I taped the list to the bathroom wall, with the idea that I would track how much time I actually spent on each item.
The results were appalling.
When I reviewed the list, I realized almost nothing on the list actually got done. Yes, I managed to spend a great deal of time at the gym. Indeed, I am not sure why I thought that was a habit to be cultivated, as I already went every day,
What I discovered was that unrecognized habits, like lingering for an hour every morning over coffee as I read the news, had taken over and were running roughshod over habits related to faith and inner life. Needless to say, a drastic reordering of priorities was required, and today I do make time for the things that are important to me, even if I still waste far too much time over coffee
So, know your habits, and choose carefully among them.
Know when to say goodbye to a habit
A dear, dear friend came to me several years ago. Her visit was the culmination of a tumultuous period in her life, marked by losing her job and her husband storming out of the house, vowing never to return.
As we sat together, drinking coffee and carefully dissecting the events of the past few weeks, my friend (we’ll call her Karen), tears suddenly welled up in Karen’s eyes as she said, “The problem is, I’m an alcoholic.”
We talked at length about her use of alcohol. Karen had begun drinking while in a sorority on college, when she was one of the popular girls, a highly sought-after friend and date. As the years went on, she told me, she went from one high-profile and high-stress job to another. At each, she found herself going to more and more social events. There, she experienced pressure to drink, and in drinking she found relief from pressure. Slowly but surely, drinking became a habit, the habit became a disease, and the disease took over her life.
If a habit is hurting you, say goodbye to it before it takes over.
Develop the habit of joy
Have you ever noticed that there are some people for whom life seems easy? People who sail through life, largely untouched by the challenges most of us face?
I’ve known several people like that. People who respond with kindness, grace and poise no matter what happens. My experience is that these people suffer all the same issues as does anyone else–loss, death, illness, uncertainty–but they are buoyed by a joyous attitude that carries them through both good times and bad,
What’s particularly important about a positive attitude is that it acts like a doorman. Instinctively, it lets in other positive perspectives, like kindness, patience, and tolerance, while turning away negative influences.
And positive attributes do tend to congregate in the same place. Whether it’s a case of like begetting like, or being open to positive change, consciously choosing to walk on the sunny side of the street invariably leads to personal and spiritual growth.
So if you cultivate any one habit, make it the habit of living a joyous life.
Eric Bonetti is a former nonprofit professional with extensive change management experience. He now works as a realtor.
Image: Procopious the Righteous is praying of unknown navigating by Nicholas Roerich