Wednesday, March 09, 2005

Creature of Habit - Part II

Some situations we respond to by instinct and others we respond to by habit, like Pavlov's dog. We have free will. However, our will gets all but nailed to the floor by habit. An essential part, then, of exercising free will is to choose which habits we will form and which we will uproot.

I first encountered this idea while reading Charlotte Mason on childhood education. Well, no, it's inception for me was in C.S. Lewis' Mere Christianity, book IV, chapter 7, "Let's Pretend".

"When you are not feeling particularly friendly
but know you ought to be, the
best thing you can do,
very often, is to put on a friendly manner and behave

as if you were a nicer person than you actually are.
And in a few minutes,
as we have all noticed,
you will be really feeling friendlier than you were.

Very often the only way to get a quality in reality
is to start behaving as
if you had it already.
That is why children's games are so important. They

are always pretending to be grown-ups -playing soldiers,
playing shop. But
all the time, they are hardening
their muscles and sharpening their wits so
that the pretence
of being grown-up helps them to grow up in earnest."

I read this and began thinking about behaviour and character. Which comes first? Does a man do good because he is a good man or is he a good man because he does good?

I'm sure I could credit many authors with contributing to the pot of this idea, as it stewed in my mind. But back to Charlotte Mason. She was a late 19th/early 20th century educator who is rightfully being saved from obscurity, mainly by home-schooling parents. In her book, Home Education, she writes,

"One of the great functions of the educator is to secure that actions will be so regularly, purposefully and methodically sown that the child will reap the habits of the good life, in thinking and doing, with a minimum of conscious effort."

Ms. Mason goes on to identify the most important of these habits, including the "habit of attention", the "habit of manners", the "habit of truthfulness", the "habit of gratitude", among many others. Children will leave home and develop their own philosophy of life, of course. But if a boy has been trained to the "habit of manners", chances are that he will be polite. If he has practiced the "habit of truthfulness" for many years, most likely he will be an honest man. Again, from Home Education,

"Educate the child in right habits and the man's life will run in them, without the constant wear and tear of moral effort of decision."

This is very important. As I wrote in my previous post, I have few good habits, that I can think of , which means that I am at a severe disadvantage as regards doing good. Good acts that I can choose come with tremendous, often dissuading, "wear and tear of moral effort". It is incomparably harder to develop habits in an adult than in a child but I owe it to myself at least to try. Here's a saying attributed to Thomas a Kempis:

"Sow an act, reap a habit,
Sow a habit, reap a character,
sow a character, reap a destiny."


laura said...

as far as the first comment is concerned, I agree with the writer. I have to in some way trick myself when I'm feeling like the crap of the earth. It's been suggested that I call/email someone to see how they're doing in order to "get out of myself". I truly believe that my mind is my worst enemy. Hopefully my kindful acts to other people will grow more and more habitual to the point that I won't be going crazy in my head and instead automatically ask someone how they are doing.

I think I shall become perfect soon.

p.s. sorry if my "picture" grossed you out. It was intended for humour purposes only:)

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