Saturday, August 6, 2011

Can you change?

Often when my cat Romeo kills a bird or a bunny, he will leave some brain pate or a gnawed paw under a bush to share with his sister Pooky. The problem is that Pooky has a very sensitive tummy and is on a restricted diet. (I think you can see where this is going.) She finds these gourmet treats and gobbles them up. Then she’s sick for days and I get to clean up the mess. This happened again early last week and I caught myself wondering why she keeps eating stuff that’s so bad for her. It doesn’t make sense. But then I remembered that she’s a dog, after all, and dogs don’t know any better. She has no awareness of the connection between what she eats and how it affects her.

Well, all this ruminating led me to the painful question: So, what’s my excuse? I put stuff into my mouth on a daily basis that I know I shouldn’t. And the big difference between Pooky and me is that I do know better. Why is it so hard for me to change my behavior and do what I obviously know is best for me?

Last night I was with some friends and we watched a wonderful video of Karen Armstrong speaking about compassion. After the viewing, we had a deep discussion reflecting on what it really means to practice compassion in the world around us. Then when we moved our conversation to the kitchen table over a cheesecake, somehow the topic of politics came up. Mind you, this was my kind of crowd, a gathering of politically like-minded people, so we weren’t really in a position to practice compassion with one another. However, we were in a position to practice compassion with those who weren’t there. But instead, we ended up ranting about them. We just couldn’t stop ourselves. Again and again one of us would say something like, "How can we talk about those we disagree with from a standpoint of compassion? How can we put into practice what we just heard Karen Armstrong talk about in her speech?" We’d think on that for a moment, and go right back to bashing those who don’t see things our way. Much as we knew it wasn’t what we wanted to do, we couldn’t help ourselves. It became almost comical. Almost.

Do you ever wish that you could be different? Maybe you’re not satisfied with your unhealthy lifestyle. You might long to be more compassionate in your behavior toward others. You could be frustrated with a job that doesn’t stretch you to use your God-given gifts. Perhaps you have experienced one failed relationship after another. Or your connection with God falls short of what you’ve always longed for. Wouldn’t it be nice if you could just wave a magic wand and be transformed into the person you want to be?

Understanding yourself goes a long way toward finding a new life. So does a sincere desire to alter the course of your life. But neither self-awareness nor strong motivation will necessarily change you. You can know all about yourself and have a clear vision of how you want to act differently in the future, but then putting that into practice is another matter entirely.

St. Paul seemed to understand this struggle when he wrote: “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.” (Romans 7:14) He knew what he should do, but he had trouble actually pulling it off. His answer was to put himself in God’s hands and to allow God to change him. It’s an answer that still holds true for us today.

God changes people who are willing to open themselves up to the Holy Spirit at work in their lives. But that doesn’t mean that we just sit around with our palms turned upward, waiting for the Spirit to enter our bodies. It means that we trust the Spirit to lead us to opportunities for growth and then we have the good sense to follow where the Spirit leads us.

It’s been almost 2,000 years since St. Paul wrote to the Romans, and in that time, humans have learned a lot about how the mind works. One of the things we have learned is that the brain has pathways in it that are formed when we behave a certain way. The more a behavior is repeated, the more defined the pathway becomes.

If you’ve ever been walking in the woods, you’ve probably noticed that there are pathways between the trees. These are routes that have been traveled in the past. The more traveled the pathways are, the more beaten down, wider, and easier to use they are. That’s how it is for the pathways we have in our brains, too. The more we travel a certain pathway, the easier it becomes to use it. When we’re hiking around in the woods, we tend to stay on the pathways that are well worn. It’s easier for us to get from one place to another and we don’t have to worry about becoming lost. Our pathways in the brain are the same for us. We tend to stay on the well-worn pathways, the ones that have worked for us in the past.

The most entrenched pathways are the ones we began traveling as children. Take our relationship pathways, for instance. As children, we first learned how to cope with the significant relationships in our lives. And that's why the relationships that we had with our parents have such an influence on all our future relationships. From our parents we learned how to be in relationship. We learned how to love. We learned how to trust. We learned how to protect ourselves. A pathway was formed. It’s a well-worn pathway that's worked for us, so it continues to be the pathway we find ourselves traveling in the significant relationships of our lives.

Some of the pathways in our brains are helpful for us, and some aren’t. If you’ve seen a pattern in your behavior that isn’t healthy, even if you’ve done the intensive work of understanding why you’ve engaged in this unhealthy behavior, it’s still really difficult to act differently, because you naturally use the pathway in your brain that’s so well traveled. Changing your behavior requires you to step off of a well-established pathway and form a new pathway. Can you see why it’s so difficult to change? It means setting out on a different course than the one you’ve always used in the past.

A new path isn’t a path at all until it’s been traveled a few times. It takes more than one journey to forge a new pathway. And it’s hard work. There are boulders to be removed along the way, weeds to be chopped down and trees you may need to go around. It can be so difficult that you may return to the old path by default. But the same old path will never get you anywhere but the same old place. There is only one way to find yourself in a new place.

God gives us all opportunities to forge new pathways in our lives. Don’t let those opportunities pass you by and your life will be changed. I don’t know that Robert Frost was talking about the spiritual path when he wrote about two roads that diverged in the wood, but his words ring true. When you take the road less traveled, it makes all the difference. It’s the way to transformation.

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