Tag Archives: manliness

Your Bad Habits and Your Brain

head-607480_960_720.jpgI 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.

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Frog, Toad, Cookies, and Temptation

Originally published in the Patching Cracks column in the Big Sandy Mountaineer 4/24/14. I have done some some editing and made some additions here. 
Frog-and-Toad-illustratio-007.jpgOne of my favorite stories to read my daughter at bedtime is from The Adventures of Frog and Toad. In the story, Toad bakes a batch of cookies. He and Frog discover that they cannot stop eating the cookies because they are too delicious. They begin to devise ways to prevent themselves from eating the cookies by making it more difficult to give in to temptation. Frog called it: “Building up willpower.” They quickly discovered that if they wanted to eat the cookies badly enough they would find a way around obstacles. Eventually, Frog throws away all the cookies and proclaims: “we have lots and lots of willpower.” To which Toad responds: “You may keep it all, Frog, I am going home now to bake a cake.” It’s a funny story with an interesting point. The problem wasn’t the cookies, the problem was that they wanted the cookies more than they wanted to not eat them. The book of James touches on this idea when it addresses the things that are in our lives that cause temptation. It’s easy to blame God for giving us such temptations. However, temptation starts in us and are a product of our fallenness. In Romans Paul describes how the sin living in us seizes upon the law of God as a standard to rebel against. Sin drives us to do things we hate. He describes sin and the ensuing temptation as powerful and ruling over our bodies. As a result of this powerful force within us, even if the things we want are not in front of us, if we want them badly enough, we will go looking for them. Mind you, it is not the case that desire itself is bad. Desire is natural. Desire for food, pleasure, leisure, security, relationships, being right, or anything else are simply a part of how people are designed. Desire becomes destructive when it loses all checks and begins to cause damage. It can be seen in decisions made simply based on a desire with no concern for inevitable consequences and what is right or wrong. A common example is carelessly spoken words that are regretted the moment they are spoken. Other examples include extramarital affairs, the seemingly iron grip that pornography seems to have over the lives of many men, addictions, eating disorders, spending problems, etc. These typically involve normally healthy desires that become distorted and get out of control. James describes this as being dragged away by our own lusts. Ultimately, it’s important to recognize that the source of the problem is within us.

The solution for dealing with these sorts of issues begins with recognizing that if our problem is rooted internally, the solution will need to be external to some degree. The Bible describes the solution as allowing God to intervene and aid us in overcoming that which controls us. If we aren’t strong enough to defeat a problem on our own, we need someone who can aid us in doing so. Apart from a higher power intervening, we will find ourselves stuck. Paul explains this in Romans 7 & 8. New life in Jesus through God’s Spirit is the pathway to overcoming temptation. This is achieved through intimate relationship with the savior and discipleship. The Spirit supernaturally intercedes and enables us to overcome temptation. Sometimes this means confessing our sins and seeking accountability with our brothers in Christ. It begins by acknowledging to God that you are helpless to overcome your own sins and that you need Jesus to give us new life. Shortly thereafter we need to actually come under his Lordship by obeying his teachings, joining a body of believers, reading his word, and talking to him regularly.
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Pink On Family and National Morality

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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.

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Defining Manhood: Office, Man-Cave, or Study?

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Where I spend my time defines much of who I am.

A few months ago, my 2 year old boy got his own bedroom. The room change cost my wife her home office. She telecommutes, so her office is an indispensable commodity. She moved into my space and I moved my office to the back porch. As I was moving into my new space, I had a realization. For years I’ve been calling my space “my office.” This seems sensible to me, because I often work in it. Pastoring is seldom a 9-5 gig and work gets done when and where it needs to get done. However, I found myself settling into my office to work because it was there. Instead of walking down the road to my actual office, I would settle into my space to work whenever I felt like it. The down side of having a home office is that you actually use it. The line between home and work blurs more and more as time goes by. This is less than ideal, especially in a career that, by nature, doesn’t divide cleanly. My friends go to the church, my spiritual life is heavily attached to work, and my family life is connected to my job. Further, I realized that by calling it “my office,” I was defining myself heavily by my job. We use words to define things. Our labels for things will forever shape how we see them. My office is where I work. I don’t want to be defined by my employment in my own eyes or in the eyes of my children and wife. This makes it necessary to change the label. The challenge begins there. If I don’t want to be defined by my job, what do I want my space to be?

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In all honesty, my home office could easily be called “the giant mess where I hang out.” 

It’s popular for men to define their space by calling it a “man cave.” The idea behind the man cave originated with Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus. The premise is that men tend to need alone time to recharge their batteries. The man cave has become a bit of a status symbol, with guys building elaborate rooms dedicated to “manly things,” like cars, video games, drinking, etc. The problem I have with this is that it plays the same game as the “home office” by defining men. Instead of defining men by their work, they are defined by their lowest, least evolved state. “Cave man” may be a part of our past, but it is not something to aspire to. I used to wear diapers and I may one day be forced to do so again, but I do not aspire to return to that stage. People will typically only jump as high as the bar that is set for them. If you tell me, my son, or any other man that a caveman is what they are, aspiring to greater is a bit muted. I don’t want a cave and I don’t want my “alone time” to be a de-evolution. Labels ought to inspire men to aspire to greater things.

This prompted me to start calling it my “study.” I don’t take tests and probably will not be in school ever again. However, I want to get better. I read and research to improve myself because my wife and kids deserve the best me I can give them. I feed my curiosity and entertain myself with things that interest me and prompt me to grow. Rest and recharge can be accomplished by aspiring for better, rather than merely escaping to work or mindlessness. There is a secondary consideration here, beyond my own aspirations. My children learn what men ought to look like and how they ought to behave by watching me. Their first lessons in this subject matter will be learned from me. The words I use to define myself and how I model manhood will teach them much. How do I want my son to see his own manhood? Make no mistake, he will learn his values by imitating me. Will he be defined by his employment or his basest drives? Or will he learn to be something more by watching me?

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Masculinity That’s More Than Just An Image

  

  
While reading an article on masculine identity recently, I was treated to a fascinating comparison of two presidents: Theadore Roosevelt and Calvin Coolidge. President Theadore Roosevelt was a genuine cowboy. He was a Rough Rider that charged up San Juan Hill and a rancher in the Dakotas. Through and through, he embodied a sort of genuine masculinity in everything from his hobbies, relationships, parenting style, intellectual pursuits, and approach to leadership. He lived during a time when the nation was wild and untamed, and the masculine ideal in western civilization was also still largely wild and untamed. 3 decades after Teddy’s years in office, Calvin Coolidge was president during a time when the culture yearned for a return to the masculinity of yesteryear, which led to a nostalgic revival of cowboys and western lore. The problem was that it wasn’t real. Attached is a picture of Teddy the cowboy and Calvin the cowboy. One of these things is not like the other. The image of masculinity is not actual manliness. Regardless of how well-dressed Calvin was, he wasn’t a cowboy. Similar phenomena can be seen today as men try to look the part, talk the part, and act the part – without ever actually fitting the part. The ideal of manliness has grown indistinct and young men carry with them a sort of insecurity about their identity as men. This is the crisis of modern man.

   
 

The Bible offers a clear picture of what God intended men to look, act, and be like. Paul tells us that Jesus is the full stature of mature masculinity. He was selfless, quick to action, principled, wise, a servant, loving, and courageous. In Christ, men are given an objective to aim for. The biggest problem we encounter with this definition is that it’s too big. I recently read a series of articles on how the ideal women of Proverbs 31 is terrible and demoralizing because it is perfection beyond attaining, sorta like trying to match the airbrushed beauty of a Cosmo cover girl. The same can be true for men. We are called to aspire to be like the son of God, the perfect man. The task seems almost too great, like attempting to swallow the sea in one gulp. However, we are given a few things that help us in that process. First, in Christ’s atoning sacrifice, we can find new life, freely given, that makes us new. We are new men if we are in Christ. Beyond being new creations, we are given the Holy Spirit who reshapes us. We are in the constant process of being remade as we follow Jesus. God helps us become new. A final major gift that God gives us in the process of becoming men like Jesus is in His word. Jesus not only offers us his perfect example, he also gives us his teachings through the scriptures. God’s word gives us simple, easy teachings and directions. I don’t care for reading the instructions when taking on new things, but this is worth the effort. 

The first simple list I think is worth considering as a man pursuing a life like Jesus’ is found at the end of Paul’s letter to the church in Corinth. Paul spends most of the letter answering questions that he had received in a letter from the church. He ends the letter with a set of instructions on various issues. Sandwiched between two paragraphs regarding mutual friends is 2 verses of instruction: 

Be watchful, stand firm in the faith, act like men, be strong. Let all that you do be done in love. 1 Corinthians 16:13-14

This short list reflects the basic task of Christian men in the basic work of being men like Jesus. Though the list is short, it takes place at the end of a long letter and is a reflection of the larger content of the letter. In the coming days, I’ll unpack each of these simple directions:

  1. Be watchful
  2. Stand firm in the faith
  3. Act like men
  4. Be strong
  5. Let all that you do be done in love.

This is by no means the only set of instructions given in the scriptures. However, it is a good place to start because it is all encompassing. 

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Growing Up To Be Like Jesus 10/3/15


I’m not an athlete. In high school, I lettered in competitive public speaking. As a kid, my idea of a workout was changing extra channels on the remote. I was marathon watching television shows before Netflix marathons were invented. All of my years of non-athleticism culminated in a glorious moment when I stood in the path of Dave during a pickup football game behind the library one afternoon in college. Dave had been named the hardest hitting football player in the state of Michigan before coming to the small private college where we were playing ball. Dave took the ball and ran right up the middle. I planted my feet and stared Dave down as he charged at me. Several moments later I was on my back and Dave was somewhere downfield. I had pretty much no chance of stopping him because he was fit, strong, and an experienced football player. I wasn’t any of those things. There’s an important lesson here. I wasn’t prepared to stop Dave. Had I done the work to grow in stature and prepared for the momen,t I would certainly have done a better job of standing firm in the moment. As Alexander Graham Bell once said: “Before anything else, preparation is the key to success.” 

Of course, this sports moment doesn’t matter much. However, the lesson behind the experience is worth learning. In his letter to the church in Ephesus, Paul describes the various gifts that believers receive from the Spirit in order to mature and prepare the church to stand firm in the faith. He explains that the various leadership roles, like pastors, teachers, and evangelists, are there to train the church. At its core, training the church involves training individuals to help them grow to spiritual maturity. The church and God’s people are to constantly train and grow to become solid and mature. When difficulty, temptation, persecution, hardship, or anything else come at us, we are to be prepared to plant our feet and stand our ground. This is the product of spiritual maturity. Which begs the question: What does this spiritual maturity look like? Paul answers the question in 4:13: 

…till we all attain unto the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, unto a full-grown man, unto the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ… 

Simply put, the church grows in its resemblance to and imitation of Christ. This is the goal. Jesus is the ultimate man, who all men should aim to resemble in their lives and lifestyles. His life and teachings are the model we’re to imitate. The job of teachers, preachers, and leaders is to help the people of God grow to be like Jesus by discipling them. 

Paul goes on to explain that once this discipleship is completed: 

…we may be no longer children, tossed to and fro and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the sleight of men, in craftiness, after the wiles of error; but speaking truth in love, may grow up in all things into him, who is the head, even Christ… (4:14-15)

Paul’s letter focuses on causes of division and the need for believers to live righteously before God. For men, this means that living out our masculinity means becoming the kind of man who shows Jesus to others through his words and actions. Men should aim to act and speak like Jesus. They should be firm in doing so, not stumbling or inconsistent. This is no small task and cannot be accomplished alone. It requires that men who desire to grow to be like Christ to enter into the task of discipleship, or rather, training for Christ-like living. It is a daily, conscious effort to grow. 

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