I am an impatient and highly skeptical consumer of self-help literature, which too often strikes me as simplistic and shallow, insulting to the complex, painful wounds of those who seek solace in it. I have encountered some exceptions, and I clasp those to my heart with great affection. The finest of them shine a light on the unruly dynamics of the mind and heart, and speak of how a balanced, meaningful life depends on observing them with attention and learning where they may and may not be controlled. Since Aristotle, philosophers have opined that we are creatures of habit, that we can change the course of our lives by deliberately changing our patterns of action until they become automatic. My own life reflects the truth of this assertion, for good and ill. I have changed my eating and sleeping and exercise habits to make me a healthier person. I have established new habits of self-awareness, freedom and resilience. The new patterns have replaced the old until it is easier to follow their guidance than to replicate the entire thought pattern every day.
There is a shadowed side to this coin, however. Just as mindful repetition of healthy activity strengthens the mind’s desire to continue that activity, the mindless repetition of empty or downright toxic behavior strengthens the likelihood of that behavior’s continuation. The cheerful autopilot that gets an experienced runner out the door on rainy days is the same one that steers us away from exploration and joy towards security and predictability, preserves racist and sexist notions intact and safe from examination, guides us towards endless repetition of the same mistakes. Just as habit is the interim step on the path to virtue in Aristotle’s vision, it is also the complacent accessory to self-destruction if we allow ourselves to be driven only by what comes most naturally. “We are creatures of habit,” is true not only in the sense that we are capable of transforming ourselves by changing our habits, but also means that we are defined by whatever habits we have, regardless of whether they foster joy or wretchedness.
It’s been years now since I found myself so miserable that the effort required for serious change was less scary than continuing as I was. Married to an addict who was unable to find his way to recovery, I was a textbook enabler, codependent to the core, an accessory not only in his agonizingly prolonged descent into oblivion but to my own. I remember the stark terror of those days, the fractured sleep, the inability to eat followed by bouts of sudden, ravenous hunger. I remember the habits that shaped me then—adamantine denial of my own unhappiness, white-knuckled adherence to the lie that I could force those around me to change, willingness to collapse into impotent, raging despair rather than acknowledge that I had the option of letting go, admitting defeat and walking away. All my powers and gifts were devoted to maintaining those habits, in flagrant defiance of my own observations, my friends’ and family’s pleas, every noble idea I ever thought I believed in. Only when external circumstances and internal exhaustion combined to break my will and my spirit simultaneously was I able to begin to see. I had no good habits then, only the distorted, broken tools for surviving the unsurvivable. I had to start from scratch.
I was uncannily lucky, in those days, to have friends who loved me through those worst times. As I toiled my way through the years of loss and grief that had been festering under my iron discipline, I found people willing to listen, to reach out when I was unable to hold on, to share their stories and their wisdom. As I struggled to find my footing, to face and understand my own mistakes and the truth of the struggles that were now past, I began to see that none of us are free from our own darkness. None of us makes it halfway through a lifetime without being crushed, beaten down and rising again. None of us has an easy path to walk, and none of us is born with the tools even to recognize our own fears and shame, let alone to conquer them. In the utter destruction of my confidence and worldview that accompanied those darkest months, I was able for the first time to see how much of my misery had been sheer habit, born at first of small daily adjustments that became cemented over time into rigid, unyielding reflexes, effectively blocking out any impulse toward attention, observation or adaptation. There was nothing about my situation that forced me into this isolation; we are all hard-wired to default to it, given enough stress and enough fear. I don’t blame the person whose addiction derailed my psyche any more than I blame myself for being unable to withstand that series of assaults. All parties acted as human beings generally do, and the outcome was unsurprising. We lacerated each other with our anger and our desperation and our suffering, but our real targets were ourselves and our own pain. Seeing the anguish we both experienced, there is no way to wish for more.
From the ashes of those toxic habits, new ones have arisen. I have learned to concern myself less about the actions of others and more about whether my own actions align with my vision of a life well-lived. I have learned to busy myself with what I can control and observe the rest with a certain amount of detachment. I have learned that love is inextricable from freedom; I cannot love deeply unless I relinquish any design on the freedom of those I love, and I cannot feel loved by anyone who attempts to control me. I have taught myself the slow-release joy of forming new habits that nourish this new vision of freedom…running for a strong body that does what I ask of it, eating wholesome food for energy and vigor, friendships full of laughter and delight, private hours with needlework or books, a daily gratitude practice, music and beauty and working for more justice in the world. I can never master all the lights and shadows in my heart, but I can shape their dance a little better now—and see a little better where my own blind spots might be.
©Mary Braden 2015