Watching the moon sail bright across the heaven through the Badger’s skylight windows as I was falling asleep, I thought about sources of strength in making good choices.
People of faith, schooled perhaps in the-answer-is-always-Jesus thinking, are often quick to say “God. God is my strength.” Like Harry Potter’s friend Hermione, swift to supply the right answer.
God is our strength of course – and in some difficult passes, our only strength. We live in Spirit and the Spirit lives in us; otherwise we wouldn’t be alive at all. We would be mere lumps of matter, except that even matter is God-breathed. There is no getting away from the Spirit of God. So God is our strength, naturally; both by grace and by the simple fact of our existing at all.
Even so, the very word “disciple” implies that we live under discipline, not merely scudding along surfing on a cloud of inspiration. We have to do it as well as be it. Discipline requires constant exercise of choice, turning away from the territories we are passing through in order to keep to the path that is ours. This implies effort and effort requires strength; so I thought about our sources of strength.
What brought this to mind is the surprising difficulty I find in choosing every day some things I believe to be good. Not so much lofty things like prayer, I mean (though that, too), but more mundane matters – the food I eat, where I draw water, earth closeting, minimalism, abstaining from activities that hurt the Earth, walking every day. That sort of thing.
In the perpetual experiment and course of study my life has been, I have certainly discovered what is good, both by enquiry and practice. I know perfectly well why it is better for me and better for the Earth to drink water from the local spring, wash up in rainwater, eat what is simple and natural and stay away from the refined carbs and sugars and processed meat – all that kind of thing. I know why it’s better to light a fire or wrap up warm and have a hot water bottle by me than turn on the central heating. I need no further information on the subject.
As to matters of diet, the reasons why I should eat what I know is good are played out with boring repetition when I make poor choices (I do like cake) and end up liverish and shot with pains.
So I asked myself, if I know all this, why is it a hard discipline to keep making the good choices? And what are my sources of strength in making those choices?
The information itself is one source of strength; understanding the point of drinking living water and making off-grid choices is a good motivator when it comes to the slog of carrying the big bottles.
But information alone fails under the pressure of tempting alternative possibilities. Expedience, busyness, convenience – these can overwhelm information even when they should not.
The three principle sources of strength I identified are habit, context and community.
Habit is a strong motivator. When I am rushed or harassed, habit becomes the easy choice – the thing that wins through. The point about habit is that you no longer have to think; it’s the path you could walk in your sleep. So when I’m distracted from the weaving of a beautiful fabric of daily routine, by news or obligations or just the presence of other people, it tends to be habit I fall back on. The more I make the good choices, the more likely I am to go on making them. They seem easier as the habit strengthens. They become just what you always do.
Context is also a strong motivator. I should explain what I mean by that. For example, if you are trying to build a dietary discipline that protects you against diabetes, obesity and fibromyalgia, you will do well not to attend cream teas and stay out of the baked goods aisle in the supermarket. If you pick your snack in an orchard and shop in the fruit and vegetable section, you’ll establish the right path for health. What applies to food choices is also true of other choices – surrounding yourself with, or immersing yourself in, the environment that enhances the likelihood of making the right choice is obviously a source of strength. If, for example, you have resolved to stop driving cars and travel only by public transport, you are more likely to keep your resolution if you make your home in the city than if you choose to live up a steep hill five miles from the nearest store and you have a family to feed.
Community is a strong motivator too. It’s easier to sit down to a plate of steamed vegetables if you aren’t with somebody eating a cream doughnut. It’s easier if three of us lug the bottles of water home from the spring and we are all walking along together chatting. And it’s a great deal easier to practice minimalism if the people you live with choose to do the same. You can’t even see your minimalism if they don’t.
It occurred to me that habit, context and community are pillars of the monastic life, which maybe explains its strength and success for helping people who want to make good choices.
I haven’t got anything more to say about this, so I’ll stop here.