Day 8: Is the Science of Habit Formation Compatible with a Christian Life?

Welcome to day eight of my blog series on “accepting the world.” To catch up on the rest of the series, visit the dedicated page for the series here.

When I began this series, I was just coming out of a long-ongoing and difficult professional situation that had a personal component to it. To be honest, even if there hadn’t been a personal component to it, I would have felt it on an intense and personal level anyway. For those who are interested, I’m an Enneagram 4, and that basically explains everything. (My wife being an Enneagram 9 is really wonderful).

Be that as it may, this time, there was a hefty dose of personal betrayal in this situation that left me reeling. As I mentioned in a previous post, my reaction was one of the reasons why I decided to do this series in the first place. I was disturbed that for a long time, I couldn’t either forgive the people involved or find the inner stability to refocus my attention to gratitude instead of self-pity.

How much are we in control of our way of thinking?

I was comforted by a commenter who assured me that it was unrealistic to expect that I would have been able to find the strength to be grateful after a personal betrayal. It was a kind comment, and I’m grateful for it. But I’ve been thinking about it a lot lately, and I’m not sure I entirely agree.

If we are honest about the Lives of the Saints being instructive for us practically, not theoretically, then we have to admit that the saints do this constantly. They often incur personal attacks, and though we are not privy to their thoughts and emotions in hagiographic literature, their actions seem to suggest they are able to redirect their emotional energy toward more beneficial ways of thinking and being. I may be wrong, but “bear one another’s burdens” seems to be a direct command to do just that.

I might be mixing up apples and oranges, I admit. It’s possible to act in a virtuous way without the heart immediately following suit. But I believe that the saints are able to do this–to actually change their heart with a synthesis of their own will and God’s grace, aided by extreme humility and a forgetfulness of personal dignity. And I do not think we are called by our Church to be anything other than saints.

Put simply, there must be a way of changing our reactions to difficult situations, and it must somehow be bound up with our identity as Orthodox Christians, who are called to emulate Christ and to become saints.

Modern Habit Formation and Identity

This led me on several rabbit holes, but the most productive (I hope) was a thought I had after reading Atomic Habits by James Clear. I listened to the entire book on a trip from NY to DC, and the entire time, I was buzzing with enthusiasm. Not because Mr, Clear was saying anything all that unexpected or revolutionary. No, I’ve long followed Dn Michael Hyatt, and am a dedicated user of his Full Focus Planner, so much of what the books said was familiar to me.

What surprised me was one element–the book made it clear that true change in behavior (in this case, specifically habit formation) is possible only with that changed behavior being rooted in identity. Simply put, if you want to become a better father, you have to identify what a good father is, then strive to become him. Not act like him. Acting like him might eventually get you to be more like him, but that way doesn’t work very well. Putting your energy to adjusting your own sense of identity works far better.

All this is supported by a lot of recent science. But even more so, it’s supported by Christian anthropology. That’s what got me excited.

Identity change? Are you serious?

No, I don’t mean identity change in the modern sense of choose-your-own-gender-or -sexual-preference. I mean it in the older sense. In the sense that we are all fallen creatures, our true nature twisted beyond recognition. And the only way we can become our own selves again is by modeling our very identity on the God-Man, Christ, Himself.

This is why, I realized, so many self-help mantras and routines don’t work. It’s because they assume that all you have to do is change your mindset and convince yourself to act better, and if you apply some willpower, you’ll be ok. Nope, says the combined ascetic experience of the entire Orthodox Church. Given the choice to do what is good for us or what is comfortable or pleasant (but bad for us), we will more often than not automatically choose the bad. Because it’s comfortable. Because we are fallen creatures.

But take James Clear’s system of attempting to change our identity in terms of habit-forming, and suddenly, you’re brushing up against something quite profound. It is only when we try to live in alignment with an outside ideal (Christ Himself) that we begin to approximate a virtuous life. All the ascetic fathers agree about this. Entire books have been written about this.

By the way, this is not an isolated incident. More and more, research in neurobiology and human behavior seems to only confirm what Christians have come to know from millennia of experience. And I say that not because I think we should disregard this new research. Quite the opposite. It’s a confirmation that there is much good that we may take from it.

Not everyone is cut out to be a monk. For those of us still in the early stages, I think books like Atomic Habits are immensely helpful. Just as long as we understand that there is nothing new under the sun. And thank God for the wisdom of our Fathers, and for the fact that more and more people are waking up to it.

14 comments:

  1. The good you are finding in these books and systems seems to boil down to Virtue Ethics, which is the foundation of Christian Ethics.

    As for the extra trappings, I don’t think the Russian Church has an official position on Enneagram yet (like we do forbidding Reiki), but the Roman Catholics list Enneagram among the neo-gnostic ideologies of New Age spiritualism in Jesus Christ The Bearer of the Water of Life, the Vatican report warning of New Age spiritualism.

    1. I find that pretty interesting. I haven’t studied it extensively, but one of the biggest proponents of this personality type system is a Catholic monk. It’s entirely possible that the whole thing comes from Evagrius the Monk. Yes, there have been some New Age types that have used it, but from what I can tell, there is a lot of good to it. I’ve found it immensely helpful.

      1. I assume your talking about the monk Evagrius of Pontus? I would be very, very interested in reading about that possible connection if you can remember where you saw it.

        Have you read Lossky’s chapter on Evagrius in “The Vision of God.”

        1. No, I haven’t read Lossky. As for the connection to Evagrius, it’s referenced in “The Road back to You” by Ian Cron. I don’t remember that there’s more than a passing reference to it, though. I haven’t really studied the question in detail.

    2. And yes, I think part of it is contained in Virtue Ethics. But what I’m trying to elucidate is, partly, that there need not be a knee jerk reaction against scientific inquiry into human behavior. No, they’re not necessarily going to say much that is new, but if what they find only confirms what we know about human nature to be true, so much the better.

      1. I think the knee jerk reaction against Enneagram I precisely that it isn’t a scientific inquiry but a spiritual one couched in pseudoscience terms. I have been unable to find any science that backs it up any more than, say, astrology.

        If you are looking for an example of practical methods that scientific inquiry into human behavior has produced, but that elicit a knee jerk reaction against them, particularly by Christians, I think Mindfulness would more fit the bill.

  2. Do you mind if I clarify a little bit? 🙂 Because I do actually agree with you that we are called to such a complete transformation, including ways of thinking and emoting.

    But. As long as we live in a sinful world, there will be situations for which grief and pain are appropriate emotions. Death of a loved one, for example– we may experience a “bright sadness,” but it’s still a form of sadness— and “Christian” attempts to gloss over this, the inability we have to sit with each other’s pain, can become that which breaks already fragile faith.

    Other obvious examples include the demonic and evil ways human beings abuse each other. But it does not make any sort of sense for a saint to rejoice in her rape while it is happening. That would be insane.

    Certainly betrayal can be experienced at different levels (a workplace backstabbing is perhaps less violent than adultery)— but at its most beastly, betrayal is absolutely a demonic action that merits grief. Does that make a little more sense?

    So perhaps it needs the clarification that we are, after all, temporal creatures: Weeping may spend the night, but there is joy in the morning, right?

      1. No apologies necessary! Springboards make diving more fun. And I thought it was worth a clarification— in our psychotherapeutic culture, it’s easy to get stuck over-validating an emotion. 🙂 And you’re right about how saints DO exhibit a level of self-control over their emotions that seems foreign to most of us. I agree that it’s less about “fake it till you make it” behaviorism and more about deep work done in cooperation with the Holy Spirit.

        I’m enjoying this blog series! Good food for thought.

  3. I’m a little lost, could you please explain more of how one ….”attempts to change our identity in terms of habit-forming?” Maybe give some examples of how to “live in alignment with an outside ideal (Christ Himself) that we begin to approximate a virtuous life. “ I would really appreciate more discussion on how to “become rooted in identity? “
    Thank you so much for your clarification and help in this.

    1. absolutely! Instead of thinking in terms of goals: “I will write 4 books this year,” the book argues that it’s better to think (and say) “I am a writer,” then go and write, because that’s writers do. It’s more effective in terms of forming a habit than setting smart goals, because if you can manage to convince yourself that you are what you want to be, the actions come more naturally. I’m not explaining it very well, though. It’s not a matter of out-thinking your brain. It’s a matter of choosing how to live.

      1. Ok, thank you. I’m a seeker of orthodoxy and have been a Pentecostal Protestant for over 40 years. Changing behavior has been a huge part of my Christian walk. I see a little bit of what your saying. These truths take awhile to sink in and take hold.
        Thank you again

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