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.
We may give our human loves the unconditional allegiance which we owe only to God. Then they become gods: then they become demons. Then they will destroy us, and also destroy themselves. For natural loves that are allowed to become gods do not remain loves. They are still called so, but can become in fact complicated forms of hatred.
C.S. Lewis — the Four Loves
In general, emotions are a difficult topic for men. This difficulty spans a broad spectrum, from emotionless stoicism on one end, to the uncontrolled passions of aggression, anger, lust, and ambition that have earned the male gender a reputation for acting as the bull in the china shop of their relationships. One of the hallmarks of a mature man is his ability to manage his emotions. This is not full repression of feeling and passionless existence. The stoic philosophers succeeded in producing incomplete men by attempting to avoid one of the fundamental strengths of man. God designed passion into men, that we might reflect his character. You cannot read the scriptures and miss God’s love, joy, sorrow, rage, and jealousy. In short, we were made in the image of a passionate God. Jesus was often angry. He loved folks passionately. He wept at the death of Lazarus, and he mourned over Jerusalem’s ongoing rebellion. It is important to understand that God’s passions are restrained by His will and holiness. Further, it is important to understand that these are qualities of God, they are not God himself.
C.S. Lewis explains this idea well by pointing out that “God is love”, but “love is not God.” Men can find it tempting to turn their passions into gods. It’s easy to do because in its finest state, love can resemble God. This is appropriate, being that God’s perfect love is one of His major attributes. However, when love, or any of our passions, is elevated to the level of a god to be worshipped, it quickly also becomes a demon. Lewis’ book exploring this topic focuses exclusively on love, and he is correct in asserting that love, apart from any of our passions, most tempts us to worship it as a god. However, I would argue that all of emotions and passions can quickly take control of our lives. A man who pretends that he experiences no lust is no more honest and right than a man who worships romantic love and connection, being led by the nose from romantic infatuation to infatuation. A man who follows his heart and his secretary’s short skirt away from his wife and children is not magically virtuous if he justifies it saying: “The heart wants what it wants” with the reverence of a man righteously worshipping romantic infatuation.
Lewis classifies love into four categories: affection, charity, friendship, and Eros (romance). A man does well to exhibit each with zeal where appropriate; along with other emotional states, like anger, pride, sorrow, etc. The mark of a mature man is that he is not controlled by these emotions. A mature man doesn’t drop into fits of rage like a petulant child, flinging hurtful words at those around him in retribution for not getting his way. Rather, godly men control anger, using it judiciously to improve the world around them, imitating Christ in passionate pursuit of what is right and good in the creation. A righteous man strives to love his wife faithfully, devoting his romantic energies to her and investing in the relationship so as to strengthen the marriage, enjoy his wife, and model Christlike marriage to his children. This precludes his chasing after romantic trysts, allowing a momentary infatuation to ruin his family, or submitting to his lust by indulging in pornography. Maturity sees romantic love as a component of long term committed relationships. Love for life’s mission and goals is another area where passion can quickly overrule good sense and wreck a man’s good judgement and direction. This is often seen with ministers who sacrifice their marriage and family on the altar of ministry success. This is a passion that neglects the weightier things of mature, Godly manhood. A man’s pride will drive him to work tirelessly to provide for his family, but the same pride can lead him to abandon his family in favor of his work. Desire to win drives athletes to training and living lives dedicated to success, though the same desire to win can lead a man to cheat or compete dishonorably. These are only a few examples of powerful passions that can drive a man to accomplish great things or break him.
This is no easy task. It requires maturity, accountability, prayer, and learning to imitate Christ. Jesus repeatedly proclaimed that his actions were a reflection of the Father’s will and in pursuit of his earthly mission. Mature men learn to bring their passions into submission, not ruled by them. But rather harnessing them in the pursuit of life mission.
Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife even as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Savior. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit in everything to their husbands. Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish. In the same way husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nouris hes and cherishes it, just as Christ does the church, because we are members of his body. “Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church. However, let each one of you love his wife as himself, and let the wife see that she respects her husband. Ephesians 5:22-33