What if I have trouble getting better?
All of us have said it, or thought it, one time or another. "I don't seem to get better." We pray. We go to church. We aren't terrible people. But, we feel that the basic things in my life which keep me from being happy, seem to stay the same. We find ourselves going to Confession - perhaps monthly, perhaps before Christmas and before Easter - and we say, "I seem to always be confessing the same things." Or, we don't go to Confession any more, because we seem to confess the same things.
We have fallen into bad habits. We feel bad about being so impatient or judgmental. We don't like it that we gossip or hurt people we don't like, behind their backs. We don't like how we might drink too much, from time to time, no matter how many times we've said we didn't want to do that again. We are disappointed and a bit embarrassed that we return to sexual fantasies too much. We can be mad at the media around us, and at what's available on the web, but we go there and it keeps being a place we allow ourselves to be drawn back to, over and over.
We can all make a list of the ruts we are in. We can get very specific about the patterns which define our contribution to why some of our relationships aren't very good or why we don't do very well with tensions or conflicts at work. And, if we got very reflective about it, we can make an even bigger list of what we "fail to do" - the things we know we should do but never get around to doing. It becomes very difficult to care for the poor I don't see or have any occasion to notice.
Paul said it in his letter to the Romans, chapter 15:19, "I do not do the good I want, but I do the evil I do not want."
Wanting to change
So, what do we do? What is the path to real conversion, real change? We know that seeking grace from the Sacrament of Reconciliation can be very powerful. God's mercy can not only forgive us but also heal us. When experience unconditional love deeply enough, we can find the desire to change, coming right out of our gratitude.
A therapist once said, "We get better when we get tired of not being better." That sure seems true. Our "firm purpose of amendment" from the Sacrament of Reconciliation just doesn't seem to work unless God's grace meets a place in our hearts that is ready, eager, open to change. When the patterns we find ourselves stuck in are no longer "our friends" but our real enemies, we begin to feel a readiness to accept the grace and move forward.
And, it also takes work. Will power alone won't work. Habits weren't build in a day. New patterns won't be immediate, either. It takes a plan. It takes vigilance and some passion. It takes a goal that we are attracted to. If we believe that we will be happier if we are freer from being so impatient and judgmental, we will be drawn, even at the most human level to cooperate with God's grace to find out what we might be like with this freedom. And, when we start to say, "I like myself better this way, and I can see that it is making a different in my marriage, my family and my other relationships," grace has had room to do its work and the fruits are so clear.
A new path
The path to that point involves several key elements. We first of all need to target some behavior. We can't change it unless we've named it and understood what it does for me and what I'd like to see in its place. For example, if I am feeling frustrated and impatient with my spouse and my children, to such a degree that it is the first thing I name as troubling me, then I can begin by asking myself what is going on in me. I have to begin by realizing I can't change anyone else. I can only change myself. The change in me might have an impact on the behavior of others, but the change starts with me. Once I understand, for example, that my impatience and frustration - which it might stem from legitimate concerns about bad behavior in others - is no longer a helpful response, for me or for my family - then, I'm beginning to understand the dynamic.
Then, I can ask what the behavior is that I want to change. I might want to start by saying, "I really don't want to raise my voice any more." Yelling, like anger itself, is one of those things which only makes everything worse. But, I might respond, "I AM angry; so what do I do with it?" The only response which includes grace is to let go of it. That might involve mercy and forgiveness. It might involve surrender. Most of all, it involves saying that I am not going to get aggressive any more. I'm not going to yell. I may, on the other hand, say that my pattern is that when I get frustrated, I get afraid, and so I go silent. I do a slow burn. I may become passive-aggressive and punish the other with my withdrawal. Whatever my pattern, I can begin to change by determining what the behavior it that I want to change.
Coming up with a plan
The next step is to decide on a plan. I may decide, for example, that I'm not going to raise my voice or get aggressive at all this week, no matter how frustrated I am. But, for this to work, I need to also decide what I'm going to do in place of that familiar behavior. So, I have to come up with some replacement behaviors. I might decide that I have to "count to ten" to give myself time to slow down and make a choice to let God's grace into this moment, rather than my spontaneous reaction. And, I might come up with a pre-determined prayer I will say at that moment. For example, I could plan, and maybe even write out somewhere, my version of a prayer like this:
"Oh, Lord, here it goes again. Let me slow down and let your peace into my heart here. My husband is pushing all my buttons again. Let me see him as you see him right in this moment. You know his story, his weakness, his insecurities, and the patterns he uses to cope. Let me just love him now, the way you love me, because he needs my love now, not my reaction and punishment. Let me find some way to back off from snapping back. Let me find some way to defuse this argument. Let me find some tenderness, some kindness, to help him feel more secure and less aggressive."
Only when I come up with a plan, will I be able to being to develop a new habit.
A structure to support the plan
Finally, we need a daily pattern to support our plan. For example, we could decide that every morning, while we are pouring our first cup of coffee, or while we are getting dressed, that will thank the Lord for the day in our own words and ask for the specific grace we desire for that day. We could ask, using this example of dealing with impatience,
"Oh, Lord, thank you for the children you have given me. I want to love them as much as I can today. Give me your peace today. Calm my spirit and take away any spirit of anger or frustration with them. Let my voice and my body language today speak of tenderness and affirmation. Let me think of ways I can let them know they are loved and to reward the good they do. When I have to discipline them, let me do it calmly and clearly and lovingly."
If we begin each day that way, focusing on a specific grace we are genuinely asking for, God's grace will pour into our hearts. When we ask for the gift that God wants to give it, it simply works.
The rest of the structure is to do this kind of prayer several times during the day, not to remind God of what I'm asking for, but to re-enforce this desire in my own heart by repeating the request.
And if I fail again?
Changing our habits always involves some back sliding. But, when we are asking for the grace and practicing new behaviors, it is easy to catch ourselves sooner and sooner and to recognize what happened in this failure. Then we can learn and strengthen our desire. Gradually, the new behaviors take root. The slips become fewer and father between. We begin to see change and we like it.
Gratitude is the key to growth. When we experience that we had a good day, we will be drawn to pause and give thanks to God for God's fidelity to us and for the grace which just kept coming into the spaces we made for it.
Learning to let go of old habits and to let God's grace into our lives is really possible. We might be discouraged and find it hard to imagine some of our greatest unfreedoms and temptations would give way to this kind of process. We might be tempted to say, "This is just the way I am." This process will begin with hope - hope that we will some day say, "That's the way I used to be." Having hope in God's grace and giving it a try will bring suprising results, compared to my previous efforts at "will power" alone.