When I work with my “Masks, Transformation, and Change” classes, I always suggest that when the students are going to pick a habit to break during the course’s personal transformation project (PTP), that they try not to aim too high. We don’t know how intricately our habits are linked to other patterns, beliefs, and identities. No matter what habit we choose to break, if it’s really a habit, we will be rewarded with insight into the other things we do, think, say, and believe that help to keep us blindly obedient to its call.
A good habit often goes unnoticed, like a well-behaved child who doesn’t seem to get noticed while his or her siblings who are misbehaving in many ways seem to get more attention when they do even one ‘little’ thing well. Similarly, we don’t notice that the reason a good habit goes unnoticed is that it’s become largely unconsciously motivated, and it takes little effort or none to remember to do it. When we have what we consider a bad habit, it’s the repercussions of the action that get our attention. Whether it’s our health, suffering an injury, a recurring argument with a loved one, or getting in legal or financial trouble, those things we consider to be bad habits turn around and bite us. But if they’re habits, just like the good ones, we are often unconsciously motivated or habituated in our behavior.
When I am struggling with a ‘big bad habit,” I’m beginning to learn that often it’s the cumulative outcome of many other smaller habits that are related to similar thoughts and emotions that somehow move me to do what I don’t want to do. And when I focus on my “big” bad habit as my adversary, I often have failed to see the army of little bad habits holding it up.
The thing about getting used to doing what I don’t want to do, what I “shouldn’t” do, what I know will hurt me or others, what takes me down a path of shame, regret, embarrassment, or suffering, is possibly strengthened by my desire to avoid the smaller things that have been out of balance in my life–perhaps for a very long time.
When it comes to learning how to break the habit of silencing ourselves in the face of oppression or a serious violation of ethics, harassment or violence, in our workplaces, families, friendships, and even in our communities of faith, I believe that we are going to have a much harder time being an effective voice if we’ve got a lot of baggage built up around other things. For me, that’s often resulted in a really angry tone in my voice when I speak out, even when I’m not feeling enraged about the thing I’m discussing. But chances are that I’m pretty peeved inside about a lot of other little things to which I’m not attending.
So I’ve learned that taking on small habits, one at a time, begins to have a cumulative effect, until ultimately I am not as threatened by the bigger challenges in my life. When I gain confidence in my ability to change destructive patterns in my life, even if it’s just being better about cleaning the house, or drinking more water in the summer, that confidence is present when I am facing the orthodoxies in my life that I truly want to challenge. And I can do it without losing my balance, because I’ll be standing solidly on level ground with my own two feet, rather than stumbling when I try to avoid stepping on the painful evidence of what I haven’t been able to change.