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.
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.
Nothing is more false than the idea that mockery is necessarily hostile. Until they have a baby to laugh at, lovers are always laughing at each other.
-CS Lewis, the Four Loves
I came across this line in my morning reading. It seems like the greatest blessing in life has been laughing and playing with my wife and kids. The biggest mistake I’ve made is trying to take our time together too seriously. Some of the best conversations my wife and I have involve laughing about the craziness of our children. I kinda suspect that God probably laughs about us too.
The following is my newspaper column from this week. I do not normally post material I have published in other media (at least not without significant rewriting!). This seems like it was worth sharing. Let me know what you think. It appeared in the Big Sandy Mountaineer 9/30/15.
My 2-year old boy has a cold and was very cranky this morning. My wife and I tried all sorts of things to soothe him with little success until I pulled out a box of Star Wars toys and settled on the kitchen floor to play with him.
He wasn’t content to play with me in any other setting or with any other toys, but the Star Wars toys captured his attention. Within a few minutes my fussy toddler was flying his space ship around the kitchen, making laser noises and and giggling. He sort of knows which toys are the “good guys” and which are the “bad guys.” I generally pick the villains to play with, because that’s what my dad did, and he always wants to play with the heroes. I won’t pretend to know why my boy decided that would cheer him up, but there is something worth paying attention to in the pattern, which I’d argue is largely true of males in general.
Boys usually crave adventure toys, action, excitement, and they idolize heroic figures. Some of this is likely cultural, but I’d argue that in the hearts of men there tends to be a desire for action, an inclination to aim toward greatness, and a tendency to be inspired by noble things. These tendencies certainly shift and change as they age and develop their own values and interests. However, regardless of what form these desires take in the long run, they begin with a desire to be the hero, to be the best at whatever it is that they are pursuing, and an inclination to dream big dreams. As they age, boys tend to put these inclinations away in favor of more practical and realistic goals. This is natural and normal phenomena. Few men go to work everyday dreaming of being a hero. However, whether or not it is natural and normal, there is a sense in which it isn’t ideal. It is far better when a man realizes that their inclinations ought to be adopted to fit the lives in which they live. As the father of small children, I get to play the part of the hero. This often wears off as time goes by and children grow up. However, there are men I have known who dedicate their lives to being great fathers. Those men often raise children who see them as heroes. The same can be said of a man who dedicates himself to being a great husband. It’s important to note that this is more than just being a friend or a good provider. It is being an example, defender, caretaker, leader, fixer, teacher, and all manner of other things. Further, men who pursue depth of character, integrity, and righteousness grow to a stature that causes folks to see them as heroes and great in their own right. I would argue that this is essentially what Christians refer to when they speak of following Christ’s example. Some of the most impressive men I know are those who try to live like Jesus. Their families, friends and neighbors recognize that they are different. Paul once wrote that when he became a man he put away childish things. The things that make men great are too easily deemed childish. Having a desire to pursue greatness in family and community life, then acting on that desire, is the beginning of achieving distinction.
This blog post started out as a brief comment on an article from Mental Floss that I was sharing on my Facebook page. It slowly evolved into a rant. I decided it was an important enough idea to share publicly. The link is a collection of advertisements from 70 plus years ago that use overt shaming of women in order to convince them to buy products. The gist of most of these ads is simple: you are not pretty or hygienic enough for a man to love you. The article points out how ridiculous and offensive this approach to advertising is. Click the link to read it in depth. It’s an interesting read and Mental Floss is a pretty awesome website.
In particular, the novelty of the ads featured in the article is interesting, but the most fascinating part is the explanation about how advertising set out to make women feel inferior in order to sell them products. Advertising has changed a great deal in the sense that it has gotten more subtle and sophisticated, but it hasn’t changed that much in how it devalues women in order to convince them to consume products. It seems like most television and advertising has geared itself toward a select few messages, most of which can be boiled down to: “You’re not happy” or “you’re not adequate.” There are variations of these messages, including: “your family isn’t happy, but they could be if you use our product.” The vintage ads in the article are offensive, but they sell with the same message as most Cosmo covers and weight loss products. “You aren’t as good as our model, but you could be.” There’s a terrible trick built into the whole scheme as well. Which is that it’s a shell game. You chase the elusive prize, but even when you find it, you don’t. If you reach the “ideal” standard, the ads will keep telling you “you’re not happy” or “not good enough.” These advertisements and messages are everywhere, telling our wives and daughters to question themselves and telling young men that these are the standards of beauty that they should lust after.
The truth is that physical attractiveness is far from the most important quality for a woman to possess. Proverbs tells us: Charm is deceptive, and beauty is fleeting; but a woman who fears the LORD is to be praised. Beauty is important in some ways and men tend to be very visual by nature looking for beauty and attractiveness as a part of who they are. These are a part of reality, that we shouldn’t shame or decry, but to worship a standard of physical attractiveness that is unattainable and manufactured is wrong. It is even more wrong to shame women for not perfectly emulating it. God designed us for better than this. Men, in particular, need to lead the way in telling their wives, sisters, and daughters the truth about their value and worth as God’s creatures. Sometimes, my 4-year old daughter gushes about how she will be prettier and everyone will like her if she wears the right dress or has the right hairstyle. I do my best to correct this every time, telling her that I love her because she is herself and because God made her wonderful. The women in our lives are not to be cherished because of their beauty, though my wife and daughter are beautiful. They are worth cherishing because God blessed me with funny, clever, caring, awesome women that make my life better. I learn to love God more and be more like Jesus because of my wife and daughter. It’s hard to love my wife like Christ loved the church. It’s easy to forget that Eve was created as a perfect counterpart to Adam, to be cherished and valued as a gift. We need to do the same. It drives me crazy to think that my wife and/or daughter would ever think they are anything less than a treasure. I am amazed at how my wife becomes more beautiful every day and my daughter looks more like her all the time. I am even more amazed that them being so pretty is the least of their great attributes. Loving, respecting, honoring, and cherishing women is a blessing and a responsibility that all Godly men ought to embrace.
***Edited after posting to clarify a few ideas and fix a few awkwardly phrased sentences.***
“Next week, if you guys would like, we will start a teaching series on ‘what does it mean to be a man?’” I was pretty surprised by the response this statement garnered amongst the young men in the room. I was teaching Bible to a group of clients at a drug treatment program. The boys were largely placed by the local jail, most were from bad neighborhoods and broken homes. There were lots of kids with gang affiliations and long criminal histories. The biggest challenge in teaching them anything was finding things they would engage with at all. In this case, the young men who were present responded enthusiastically. Many of them approached me later, individually, to express their excitement about learning how to be a real man. I was initially perplexed by the response, largely because the young men routinely and loudly proclaimed their manliness. It was common to hear them yell and carry on about how tough they were. I often joked that it was like watching an episode of wild kingdom, with the young male lions strutting and posing in an effort to intimidate each other. The crazy secret behind the whole display was that most of the young men had no idea at all about what it meant to be a real man. They just figured that if they faked it loudly enough everyone would buy their act. Boys learn how to be men by watching their dads. This is the way God designed the world. If fathers are flawed, their children learn to be flawed men. This is one of the reasons why alcoholic men tend to raise alcoholic men and why the Bible says that sons are punished for their father’s sins for generations to follow. In the case of the boys in the program, because none of them had a dad to watch and emulate, they were left with what they could piece together from pop culture and their peers. The challenge with that is that boys compete with each other naturally. This meant that the fatherless boys tried to be men by being tougher than the other guy. The end result was emptiness. If a man tries to find his manhood in violence, sex, work, wealth, or anything else in the world that is temporary and fleeting, they will simply end up emptier. Solomon said that wealth, sex, work, and everything else is just a vapor. It passes and disappears as though it was never there in the first place.
The topic of manhood is complicated and will take more than one post to properly explore. In the short term, it’s important to establish a basic concept of manhood from which to work. I’d suggest that the place to start is with the source of manhood identity that is built into our world: Boys learn to be men by watching their fathers. This is because parents stand in God’s place in the lives of their children for the first several years of their lives. They provide life, food, shelter, moral guidance, correction, etc. Children’s conception of God is often shaped by their perception of their dads. Genesis tells us that when God created man, He created them in His own image. Fathers (and all men for that matter) are supposed to be copies of God in many respects. We are to share His heart, passions, loves, understanding of family, and work. When dads fail to model this lifestyle and teach their boys to do the same, they create problems. Fortunately, God provides us a more clarified example of manhood in the person of Jesus, who is God made flesh. A boy without a good fatherly model to follow can see ideal manhood in Jesus. When we choose to follow Jesus, our job is to learn to be like him through a lifetime of training, which is discipleship. This is why Christ’s self-sacrificing love and attitude of humble service is the example for husbands. He demonstrates the ideal manner of intimate relationship through his relationship with the church.
It’s easy to picture Jesus as a pollyanna-type figure or as the feathered haired guy in a bathrobe that we all encountered on flannel graphs in Sunday School as kids. Fortunately, the tame version of the Son of God is far from accurate. C.S. Lewis captured Jesus’ identity best when he wrote: “He’s not safe! But, he’s good.” Jesus’ integrity, passion, penchant for action, grace, wisdom, willingness to speak openly (even offensively if necessary), self-sacrificing service, and lifetime focus on making the world better are just a few of the qualities that make Jesus is the ideal standard of manhood. He is the ideal mold from which men were meant to be cast. It is from Him that we learn how God desires us to be. Once we know, our job is to enter training to become like him.