I found this article “Breaking Bad Habits: Why It’s So Hard to Change” a while back, and it spoke to me. I guess part of the reason is because I know I have unhealthy behaviors, and I’m often uncomfortably aware and, at times, even really bothered by other people’s practices, usually because they in some way mirror or bring to the surface weaknesses I have. This article reminded me of what is helpful and productive in breaking bad habits and establishing good ones in their place.
A big part of my problem is that I tend to minimize the effects of what I do and how other people are inadvertently harmed in the process. Comparing the severity or seriousness of something I could change with someone else’s addiction (whether clinically diagnosed as such or not) isn’t a good way to grow in holiness or compassion.
As we are reminded in the Gospel of Luke 18:9-14, when the Pharisee exalts himself before the Lord for his supposed righteousness and the tax collector stays in the back of the sanctuary begging God for forgiveness, acknowledging that he is a lowly sinner, desperately in need of God’s mercy, we see what’s in these men’s hearts. The minute we take credit for any of the goodness in us instead of thanking God for it, we run into trouble, pride, and veer into self-righteousness.
We think we are good because we keep the laws and do what we’re supposed to do, but if we are doing everything for show or the admiration, attention, or respect of others, God sees through that. He knows what’s in our hearts, whether we care to acknowledge He knows us more intimately than we know ourselves or not.
There have been way too many times in my life when I have judged others because of the decisions they make, though I’m often guilty of similar mistakes and sins. My thoughts go generally something like this: Well, at least I’m not doing what so-and-so is doing. What they are doing is sooooo much worse and more despicable, destructive, immoral, sinful, disgusting… I would never stoop so low as that. Wow! I can’t believe they can’t see what a mess they’re making of things. I mean, really, someone should do an intervention or something.
Does that line of thinking sound familiar to you? Over the years, I’ve learned that when I feel really upset by something someone is doing, it’s most often due to the fact that their behavior triggers an area of weakness in me. In seeing someone else as different, less noble, less fragile… less anything, then we are refusing to look at what inside of us is lacking.
It’s always easier to point fingers and criticize others than it is to take responsibility and ownership for the decisions we make and things we do that reflect that we are just as proud, arrogant, selfish, sinful, and disillusioned as they are. (I covered this topic in a blog post titled What's the Best Reason I Know to Have a Personal Relationship with God? I Am!)
Simone Weil stated that: “Every sin is an attempt to fly from emptiness.” This quote appears in the Magnificat magazine for Sunday, October 27, 2013, and seems to fit perfectly. We all go from temptation into sin for the same reason: to escape the pain of missing something that we want or need, to fill a void that is real or imagined.
A destructive habit or behavior is always an attempt to make up for some aspect or way in which we feel we are lacking or at the very least to distract us temporarily from the discontent, inadequacy, or “emptiness” we are experiencing.
Only in acknowledging the places inside of us that are broken, empty, and in need of healing are we able to empathize and have compassion for others. If we look down on and judge others who choose to do things to avoid their own emptiness which we find reprehensible, then we are often unaware of their level of pain and suffering, and/or we refuse to concede that it is in any way similar to our own.
People deal with pain and suffering in different ways. One person’s way of coping might not necessarily seem as detrimental as another person’s, but so many of the things we do to suppress our pain, distract ourselves from it, and/or merely survive through it are harmful to our souls, our relationship with God and others.
This reminds me of a very famous quote of Blessed Mother Teresa: “If you judge people, you have no time to love them.” Rarely do we know the situation that someone else is in, the details of their lives, the source or depth of their hurt, and even when we do know a great deal, we don’t know everything. If we set ourselves up as a judge of someone else, then we are, in essence, saying that we are superior to or somehow better than they are in some area. Again, in distancing ourselves, we deny the ways that we are lacking, whether it be regarding knowledge of the situation or compassion for another’s weakness.
There was an activity we did at a personal growth seminar many years ago that has stuck in my mind. The speaker begins describing a situation and talks about what a person does, then participants are asked how they would respond to the individual in those circumstances using body language that ranges from hostile/disapproving to welcoming/friendly. When told the first part of the scenario, most people indicate they would be upset and react negatively. Then the speaker continues with a little more backstory, and the more people find out about what this person is going through, the more compassionate people become. For example, the inattentive, seemingly rude salesclerk is seen through the eyes of compassion once we know that she’s a single mom undergoing chemotherapy but has to come into work though exhausted and feeling sick to put food on the table.
The next time we are tempted to judge someone, we could instead pray and ask God to show us what is lacking or feeling empty in us that makes us feel the need to criticize or put down someone else. It’s a lot more uncomfortable to acknowledge that we’re triggered by other people’s behavior and blame them for what they’re doing than it is to take responsibility for our reaction to other people’s choices and the pain we experience to the Lord for healing.
Another solution that has worked many times in addition to prayer is to ask questions and really listen to what the person has to say. So few people are good at actively listening, and even those who know how to do it don’t necessarily practice it all of the time.
When all else fails, we can stop and pray what many have come to call "the Jesus prayer:" “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the Living God, have mercy on me a sinner.”