THE WILL AND HABIT
It is true that in general we are creatures of habit. We walk, talk, work, eat, write according to habits we have formed, when or how we no longer remember.
We derive great advantage from habits because in virtue of them we can do things easily and quickly. We are indeed a mass of habits, “imitators and copiers of our past selves.”
Some of the habits we have acquired are very complex and wonderful. Some habits we acquired with difficulty and others with great ease. Some habits we gained unconsciously or almost involuntarily, some with full deliberation.
It is of the latter that I wish now to speak, and especially of those which are both voluntary and evil. It is, we know, easy to acquire an evil habit and very hard to get rid of one.
The first time we performed the evil act that eventually became a habit we brought about a physical change in ourselves. It may have been a bitter word of sarcasm, or a blow struck in anger, or a deliberate lie, or an act of stealing or of immodesty. Whatever it was it left a physical trace behind.
We may have repented of it bitterly, and made atonement for it, but nevertheless the trace of that sin remained in our nature and it was easier to do it a second time. We were no longer the same as before.
Then perhaps a second time we deliberately committed the same fault. The trace grew deeper. Again we committed it and this time it was much easier to do it, and we felt much less repugnance. The habit was formed. And now, perhaps after very many falls we find that the evil habit is very strong.
We have tried from time to time to rid ourselves of it, but we have failed. It is there still, and now once more we want to rid ourselves of it. What are we to do?
If we do not overcome it, it will ruin our lives and bear us irresistibly toward a destiny so terrible that we dread to think of it. What are we to do? Can an evil habit be overcome? And if so, how is it to be overcome?
Yes! an evil habit, no matter how strong and how deeply embedded in our nature, can be overcome, but naturally it costs much to overcome it.
There is a sure means, and only one means, and that is the formation of a new habit, a good habit which runs counter to the evil one. “Habit is overcome by habit.”
If you are habitually deceitful and false, you must little by little build up a good habit of sincerity and truth. If you are habitually idle and lazy, you must build up the virtue of industry and of working energetically.
If you are habitually sensual and immodest, you must build up the good habit of self-denial and delicate modesty.
But how are such new habits to be formed? How am I to become sincere and truthful, seeing that I am constantly telling lies and deceiving people? Is it sufficient on several occasions to tell the truth and to be open and frank?
No! The mere repetition of such acts would not be sufficient to form a strong counter-habit. You must very deliberately, very methodically, very resolutely, and with all the strength of your Will set yourself to will truth and frankness.
And here we return to the principles we laid down in the section on Resolutions. We form new habits by means of Resolutions strongly made and faithfully kept, and tenaciously persisted in and repeated.
We must build up the virtue of frankness and truthfulness, part by part, bit by bit, just as we pointed out the way to acquire the good habit or virtue of punctuality.
There is no need here to go through the form we prescribed in the section on Resolutions, but it must be faithfully adhered to if a strong new counter-habit is to be formed that will eliminate or render insignificant an existing evil habit.
Hence the secret of overcoming evil habits lies in the art of forming good habits by means of Resolutions. In this matter, of course, we must, more than in any other, seek aid and grace by prayer and the Sacraments.
Some evil habits are so strong that no mere natural force of Will could overcome them. But force of Will aided by God’s grace succeeds and can always succeed, and force of Will, as the best natural means, must be called up and used to the fullest extent.
I need not, I think, dwell upon the importance of overcoming evil habits at the very earliest date. The longer we indulge such habits, the harder it becomes to conquer them. We must get rid of them at once. After-remedies come too late.
There must be no delay in this matter; we must lay the axe to the root while the root is not too strong.
From your own experience of life, from the examples of others, you know how terrible a thing it is to be a slave to an evil habit, for instance to be “a slave to drink.” Such a one is wretched beyond words. He brings misery and shame on himself and on those with whom he lives. His weakness of Will makes his life on earth a hell.
He hates his vice. He hates his slavery. He longs to be free — but again and again he falls helplessly, as often indeed as occasion presents itself.
For you, there may be many minor evil habits that you should rid yourself of —habits that will tell against you in after life, and habits that are unbecoming.
Perhaps you have a bitter way of criticizing others, perhaps you have a habit of betting, or of swearing, or of working in a slipshod way, or of roughness and untidiness or of selfishness and self-indulgence — whatever faulty or improper habits you may have, the sooner you get rid of them the better, for later on you will find it very hard to do so.
When fighting against an evil habit we are up against an insidious and unrelenting foe.
This of course applies more particularly to evil habits in the strict sense, which are founded in passions. We have to fight with all the courage, constancy, and wisdom we command. Half-hearted efforts are of no avail.
We must fight with all our Will-power and keep up the fight to the end, in spite of defeats and failures. We must never lose heart even though we seem to have lost. We must still fight on and regard our failures as additional and powerful motives for fresh efforts.
“If you want to abolish a habit and its accumulated circumstances as well,” writes Dr. Oppenheim, “you must grapple with the matter as earnestly as you would with a physical enemy. You must go into the encounter with all the tenacity of determination, with all the fierceness of resolve — yea, even with a passion for success that may be called vindictive.
No human enemy can be as insidious, as persevering, as unrelenting as an unfavorable habit. It never sleeps, it needs no rest. . . . It is like a parasite that grows with the growth of the supporting body, and like a parasite it can best be killed by violent separation and by crushing.”
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