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.
“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.
While watching my kids play at the park yesterday, my daughter came running to me from under play structure, crying and rubbing her forehead. She had bumped her head on the underside of of the fire engine jungle gym. A hug, a kiss on the forehead, and and a few comforting words later, she was running around again. The most natural response to my little girl’s feeling pain, is offering comfort and doing the best I can to make it better. This is a natural response for parents. Protecting our children is programmed into our DNA. The most natural thing in the world is to hurt when our kids hurt and to try to fix it. Unfortunately, as time goes on, this instinct can get in the way of healthy development into adulthood. There are times when parents need to reign in their instinct and allow their children to struggle or hurt sometimes because its whats best for them.
There is a great line in in Proverbs:
Whoever spares the rod hates their children, but the one who loves their children is careful to discipline them.
Many folks read this as a direction to spank their kids. While this may be the case, disciplining your child includes far more than just spanking. Discipline is a wide ranging concept that is downright difficult for parents to follow through with, largely because it runs totally contrary to our inborn parental drive to protect and comfort. Here are four difficult forms of discipline every child needs, but parents are often reluctant to provide:
Natural consequences– Natural consequences are the natural, expected outcome of poor decision making. For example, if a child waits until the night before a project is due before they start working on it, then the natural consequence is a poor grade. All too often, parents see their child panicked the day before, and bail them out. At times this involves doing the work for them or calling them in sick for school the next day. These situations are teachable opportunities. Parents must decide if they will teach their child that someone else will always be there to bail them out, or if they will learn the hard lesson: “If you don’t do the work, you will fail.” This is one example, but of a huge area of teaching. If you watch people long enough, you will witness parents who attack teachers because their kids aren’t getting A’s, or demanding their kid gets to play a starting position on the soccer team, or any other situation where a parent shields their child from the consequences of their actions or failures. I’m not saying that helping your kid deal with consequences isn’t okay sometimes. Rather, I am saying that protecting them from everything teaches them to be sheltered.
Let them struggle– My little girl’s theme song right now is: “I need some help to do that.” It almost always starts playing when I ask her to do something she finds distasteful, like finishing lunch or cleaning up her toys. There are other times she tries to do things that she is just too small or young to do easily. In most instances it’s easier or seems more compassionate to help. I want her to think I will help her and take care of her. However, sometimes she needs to struggle in order to build perseverance and tenacity. If quitting is always an acceptable option, then queen she doesn’t want to do things, she’ll quit. Sometimes she needs to struggle through something difficult on her own in order to understand that the sweetest victories in life are the hard fought victories. One day my son will probably have to punch a bully in the nose. My daughter will need to practice piano for an hour a day to learn to play. Letting them face these hard situations and struggle through them creates character.
Let them fail- Our culture doesn’t seem to like letting kids lose or experience sad feelings. This has spawned sports leagues that don’t keep score and situations where kids are guaranteed success. How we deal with failure is easily as important as how we deal with success. Learning to fail and keep trying is very important, largely because there is little that can be accomplished in life without failing. Parents sometimes need to back up and let their kids fail. Its hard and heartbreaking, but its an important life lesson.
Praise their effort not their existence- I’m going to admit that this is really hard for me. I spend all kinds of time talking to my kids, and really love how they react to praise. The problem with this is that praise can train the wrong lessons into kids. We want them to feel good about themselves and be confident, but praise for things that are handed to them or not earned teaches them that they are great just for being. A far stronger lesson is praising them for the work they put in. If a child learns that their hard work is worthy and good, they will work hard. If they are perfect just for getting out of bed in the morning, they’ll expect praise for getting out of bed in the morning. Praising is good, it can reinforce behaviors. It must be used properly to be effective.