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Gratitude isn’t a habit it’s a practice

imageI was surprisingly at ease,” former President Jimmy Carter said at his press conference, recalling his emotions when his doctors told him they had found melanoma on his brain after doing surgery on his liver.

“Call it clear thinking or mind over matter. Or simply: grace,” writes Sarah Kaufman in the August 21st issue of the Washington Post. “Grace – meaning elegance, calm equanimity,” she goes on, “is the only strategy that makes any sense, really… a text book coping strategy, what any therapist would advise,… but how difficult, unless you’re in the habit of feeling grateful.”

This grace, she concludes, is Carter’s habit. She’s got the wrong grace.

Kaufman was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for her work in “criticism,” as it applies to contemporary dance. Now that’s grace of the elegant kind. But it’s not the grace going on with Mr. Carter. That grace, while it is elegant and engenders calm, is of a different ilk because it comes from a whole different source.

What Mr. Carter has spent a lifetime pursuing isn’t a “habit” of gratitude, it’s the practice of gratitude.

So what’s the difference?

Habits compel us. They are automatic and patterned responses which are out of our conscious control. Practices, on the other hand, are intentional. They are things we choose to do again and again, but they require an effort of own will – a turning toward and choosing.

Over time, both habits and practices can become very much a part of us. Their effects “show” in us, even if we don’t see them ourselves. Habits are rarely, if ever, healthy things: fingernail-biting, smoking, and addictions of all kinds lead to dis-health and tend to enslave us. What we think of as “good” habits like exercising, eating well, and getting enough sleep are not really habits at all. They are practices, chosen each time, consciously and without compulsion.

The “habit” of gratitude Ms. Kaufman calls grace in Mr. Carter’s behavior is not a habit at all, and it’s certainly not a “coping strategy” initiated strategically to “deal” with the circumstance. It’s the fruit of a lifetime of practicing the posture of gratitude before a loving God.

Day after day, we can choose again and again to enter the presence of the One who deals gracefully with us, in spite of our faults and failings, yet shines the light of redemption on our lives and offers the gift of forgiveness. That’s the grace Mr. Carter has known, and, in the hardship of a very difficult diagnosis, it surprises even him! After a lifetime practicing the presence of God he falls naturally into the calming arms of the One who has for nearly 90 years said to him, “All will be well.” He has come to trust that voice.

Habits will fail us. Oh, they can be comfortably familiar, offering distraction or temporary satisfaction, but they don’t satisfy or quench. Habits can steal our freedom; practices can grant it. Ironically, habits, which we seem to control, take it from us, and practices, where we release control, offer it to us.

Gratitude isn’t habit-forming but it is gratifying. Gradually, as we make it a practice, it shapes our outlook in the best and worst of times, a familiar destination along a well trod path.

Clear thinking and mind over matter get us only so far. When life’s circumstances tax us beyond our own resources, grace is more than a strategy. But it takes practice.

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Changing Habits – Harder and Easier than We Think

Change is hard. We are used to what we do. Oh, we may think we’d like a change – because we’re bored or unhappy or because things aren’t going well or because we KNOW there must be a better way to do this – but actually making the change is difficult. If you don’t believe me, try putting the toilet paper roll on going the opposite direction and see how long it takes to get used to that.

Generally, when I look to change something because I am dissatisfied, what I really want is for them to change or for circumstances to change. I don’t want to make a change in me. I am comfortable doing what I’m doing.

Why is it so difficult to change – even when I know I should, even when it would pay big dividends if I did? Part of this is because we are designed this way. We are built to be stable. Not just balanced and symmetrical on the outside, but completely unconsciously to seek homeostasis on the inside. Our physiological systems are designed to turn themselves up if we need more of something and turn themselves down when we need less. The perfect regulation of this system rests on pinpoint sensitivity and constant and immediate responsiveness.

Okay, that makes sense. Putting our heart rate and temperature and hormones on autopilot is a necessity. But what about my actions and behaviors? That’s what I am having trouble with – and what I should be able to control.

This got me thinking about chunking. No, not chunky. Chunking. This is what they (those science text book authors) call patterned behaviors that you initiate and then complete without thinking about the rest of the movement. Like, when you go to type your name on the computer keyboard. (You don’t need a keyboard to try it.) You don’t hunt and peck each letter. It’s one smooth flourish of movement. The same thing happens when you reach to pick something up to toss it in the trash. It’s one motion…even if you miss picking it up your arm still continues to the toss. Even when you KNOW you  missed, you don’t stop. The whole motion has been activated as a pattern.

This is adaptive. Part of our human design. We do lots of stuff, literally, without thinking.

So, maybe this is part of the reason our behaviors are so hard to uproot. While they may not be hard-wired, they are nested in patterns. To change them we need to uproot all those steps we have stored with them.

This may sound far-fetched, but I’m not so sure when I think about my routines…the coffee and ‘chini bread I “need” to have near me in the morning reading session. The warm up I “need” before I can really get going to write. The direction I turn when I enter the store. The aisle I choose when I look for my seat in the sanctuary.

Sure, I CAN resist all of these, but it takes intention and effort to do it. Without good reason, I will continue in my pattern. We are, after all, creatures of habit, built to conserve our energy.

But, what of patterns that are maladaptive? destructive? that take us out of balance? I suspect the most dangerous and unhealthy of these happen almost without our noticing. Certainly without our caring about them. If we did, we would upend them. Right? Or on a more positive note, what about those patterns we’d like to change because we know we’d be better if we did? After a while our behavior tracks become well-worn grooves, ruts in our road. The deeper they get the harder they are to climb out of.

Funny, I was thinking about this chunking of behaviors when I picked up the book a friend gave me titled, The Power of Habit, Why we do what we do in Life and Business, by Charles Duhigg. Turns out that people who are able to change their habits, even the most destructive ones, accomplish it by focusing on just one behavior that is a “keystone habit.” But the key is recognizing that many (they say perhaps 40%) of the things we call decisions are actually habitual behaviors in response to our circumstances and environmental cues.

So, about my problem with procrastination…what about the habits we have that stop us when we should go? that cause us NOT to do? Trying to focus on the one thing God wants me to attend to today. I am procrastinating – too many words on the blog!

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