I write a newspaper column entitled Patching Cracks for the local paper. Every January, I write a column on New Year’s Resolutions exploring the concept behind the practice, the reason most resolutions fail to enact lasting change, and how to improve the odds of a successful resolution. This year, I had a crazy realization. I haven’t ever made a resolution. I’ve written about the practice for years without actually trying it on for size. This year, I resolved to make severalresolutions and to try out my own advice. One of my goals for the year was to read more. However, “more” is pretty nebulous and failing to set a target to hit is the first step to failing altogether. So, I set a high, but attainable goal: I will read 52 books in 2016. Teddy Roosevelt read 2 to 3 books a day, so I figure I can manage to read one a week. Mind you, these are not just any books. I am reading 52 books that will expand me in some way. I love novels, but I don’t want to come to the end without becoming a better man. All of the my reading choices are non-fiction and focused on a topic that relates to me growing as a person. Nearly 6 months into the year, I’ve read nearly 30 books, mostly theology, Bible, counseling, manhood, marriage, or parenting focused. Beyond what I have learned from reading more in general, the effort of reading toward a goal has taught me a few things about reading that are worth sharing.
The goal of reading more started out as a way to test my own advice. However, six months into the experiment, I am finding that expanding myself through reading has been more than worth the effort. It has helped me advance my larger aspiration in life: becoming a better man.
The internet has provided us an amazing resource for engaging with our fellow man, discussing/debating ideas, and heaping foul abuse and nastiness on each other. Engaging in flame wars on the internet and mocking the viewpoint of the other person will do little to change the other person’s perspective. I am shocked at how often my brothers and sisters in Christ devolve to rants and abuse rather thank thoughtful discussion and debate. It is a sad reality that most men don’t bother to be gentlemanly or Christlike while engaging in internet discussion. Unfortunately, even pleasant arguing isn’t typically effective. It takes much more to effectively engage another person and properly represent Jesus in the process. I think the beginning of the problem is that most folks don’t reflect on what is needed to effectively represent Christ in the digital setting. Here are my 7 commandments for acting like a gentleman and an ambassador for Jesus.
I am a magnet for bad habits and addictions. I know I am not alone in this. I have spoken to scores of men who have developed unwanted patterns in their work, relationships, stress management, and leisure. Part of what puzzled me about my habits over the years is that many of them are things I don’t really want to do, but it seemed like my mind would shift into automatic pilot time and again, allowing me to live out some impulse that I’d just as soon avoid. The following is a newspaper column I wrote looking at brain functions and why they make habitual behaviors so difficult to break.
This article was originally published in the Big Sandy Mountaineer 9/9/15.
There was a large wooded park with a lake behind the house my family lived in while I was attending high school. During the four years we lived in that home, my siblings and I frequently spent hours wandering through the woods around that lake. When we did, we usually walked along the trails and paths, because it was easier. Occasionally, I remember straying from the well-worn paths and crashing through the brush. This usually took longer and resulted in scratches, scrapes, and swearing to yourself that you’d stick to the path next time. The reason is obvious: well-worn pathways are easier to travel. There is a similar phenomena that takes place within the human brain. We all have a portion of our brain that controls motor functions and handles our actions/reactions during times of stress, often referred to as fight-or-flight moments. In moments when thinking isn’t possible and the body needs to act quickly, our actions will tend to follow the “well-worn paths” that exist within our brains. This is why athletes and soldiers practice the same movements over and over in training, to prepare them to act without thinking. It sometimes leads to strange behaviors under pressure. I recently read about soldiers collecting spent cartridges in combat, mimicking their repeated behavior on the shooting range. It’s a terrible decision to collect brass while being shot at, but the point is that it isn’t a decision. It’s rehearsed behavior. This is an extraordinary example, but there are far more common ones, like when a person reaches for a cigarette or drink without thinking – especially during times of stress. There’s a part of the brain that knows that a drink or a smoke helps manage stress, which makes this an easy pathway to develop in our brains.
A far more common example of this is seen in bad habits, particularly communication and coping habits that folks develop in their relationships. We learn to fight certain ways, and breaking those habits is difficult because it’s what we’ve memorized through repeated practice. We know our arguing strategies or our escape plans and go to them almost instinctively. Married couples often find themselves having arguments that follow the same course as every previous argument they’ve had over the last several years. Husbands sometimes respond to arguing by shutting down and running for the safety of the tv, late work days, or just hanging out in the garage. Wives learn to argue as effectively as possible or to hide out by focusing on the kids or some other part of life other than their spouse. The pattern repeats and repeats, even when it doesn’t make sense anymore or when both parties realize and acknowledge that it’s making them miserable. This is largely because they have found a pathway in their brains that works, even if it doesn’t. This easy path becomes the “go to” rut that they get stuck in, largely because it is practiced and repeated so often. Changing these trained behaviors can be terribly difficult, as anyone who has ever tried to break a bad habit knows. Success can frequently be short-circuited by new stress or frustration, which sends the individual running back to the old behavior. The last few installments of this column have looked at poor communication habits that develop in marriage. Part of what makes these habits so very difficult to break is that developed pathway. We learn them and they stay learned until we unlearn them. Unlearning involves an intentional effort to change our attitude and that couples work as a team in changing the relationship patterns. Only by intentional working together, sometimes with the assistance of a counselor, (or by an act of God) are most of well-worn pathways replaced with new healthier ones. The first step is always to acknowledge the problem and choose to work toward overcoming the habit.
A few years ago, while taking a seminary class on Marriage Counseling, I realized that my performance as a husband left much to be desired. I wasn’t the worst husband in the world and, in fact, had become a better husband than I was early in our marriage. Instead of being terrible, I was just ok. That was not ok by me. I love my wife and want my life to be a blessing to her. I want her to make her life better through everything I do. This began my concerted effort to become the man my wife deserves and that God calls me to be. I approached this task in the same manner I approach every challenge and task in life. I’ve read everything I could find and experimented with implementing what I read. The following books are by no means exhaustive, but they are the ones that have influenced me more than any others. I’ve read most of them multiple times.
For 8 years, I worked in a residential treatment facility for kids with emotional disorders. I started the job after working as a Youth Pastor for several years. I had no idea what I was getting into when I started the job, but over the years, I learned a great deal about mental illness and its treatment. After just a few months I was a better youth minister and I understood more about working with people than I did in the previous 5 years of church work. The experience also prompted me to earn a masters degree in Pastoral Counseling while I was earning my MDIV and certifications for addictions treatment. I’m now finishing my fourth year as a small church pastor. Im not an expert by any stretch, but the mixture of my experiences and my educational background has taught me a great deal about how the church ought to respond to mental illness in our communities. The biggest challenges related to these efforts are a product of folks not understanding the nature of the problem and misunderstanding the need.
I came across this quote from Arthur Pink today and thought it was worth sharing, particularly in light of the alarmist things I encounter in my social media feeds on a daily basis lately. It’s easy to find folks to blame for the problems in our nation. Folks post their outrage on social media, flock to politicians peddling easy answers, demand laws that will straighten up the world we live in, and pine for God to set things right. The problem with these solutions is that they are top-down fixes to a bottom-up problem. Decline and decay start in our own homes and churches. We must address our own messes before looking to those of others. In the 2 millennia since its birth, Christianity has changed the world, not through legislation and power, but through discipleship and devotion to the cause of Jesus. Fathers, follow Jesus and grow spiritually. Then, spend time with your families, loving and teaching them who Jesus is and how to follow Him. Devote yourself to your God, your marriage, your family, and your church (in that order). If you want this country to change, start with yourselves. Through prayer and discipleship, Jesus’ following grew to fill the world. It will only happen again through the same efforts.
I love my wife. I want her to love me and think I am a great husband. Heck, I want to be the kind of husband that makes my wife feel loved, appreciated, and treasured. Further, I want her to look to me as a source of comfort, assurance, and joy. Achieving this means courting her throughout our marriage. Sitting around and wanting our marriage to grow stronger without putting forth effort is unrealistic. I also want to be faithful to God’s command that I love my wife like Jesus loved the church. This means serving her. Over and over Jesus taught that love is demonstrated through service. Over the course of 18 years of marriage, I have learned through trial and error (lots and lots of error) that simply doing things for her is a start, but it is not everything. There are all sorts of things I, and lots of husbands, do to mess up the good things we do for them. We men can be thick-headed in regards to relationships and often act stupidly in ways that mess up what we are trying to achieve. Figuring out the big pitfalls and avoiding them is a huge part of courting our wives. Here are a few I have done or have observed in others.