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Self-help books are typically not my chosen genre. I enjoy reading as a distraction from my faults, not a time to analyze them. However, I recently finished "The Power of Habit," by Charles Duhigg, and I thought it offered a lot of insight. An important aspect of spiritual development is growing in virtue, and virtue is (with the help of God's grace) the habit of doing good. Therefore, the scientific reasons we develop good habits for our health and happiness can help us in our spiritual growth as well.
Especially interesting was Duhigg's examination of willpower. He cited a study on cadets at West Point that took into account GPAs, physical and military skills, and self-discipline. They discovered that those least likely to drop out weren't the smartest or the strongest, but the ones who had "grit." This was defined as the ability to persevere "despite failure, adversity and plateaus in progress." In other words, they had willpower.
Fish filets are making their annual comeback on fast-food menus, and on Wednesday many will have smudges of dirt on their foreheads. It's that time of year. Ash Wednesday begins the 40 days before Easter that many Christians observe as the season of Lent.
When Catholics attend Mass on Ash Wednesday and receive ashes on their foreheads, they are told to "remember, you are dust and to dust you shall return" or "repent and believe in the Gospel." These words aren't a put-down but an important reminder that one day we will die, and that after death we will spend eternity in either heaven or hell. Lent is not an attempt to "earn" our salvation -- Christ did that once and for all when he died on the cross. However, each choice we make on Earth is a choice that either brings us closer or further away from him and, let's face it, some of these choices are not easy.
I imagine people don't wake up and decide that today is the day they are going to rob a bank or cheat on their spouse. Sin creeps into our lives in the minute details of life -- the bank teller makes a mistake and we don't correct them, or an old flame from high school messages us on Facebook and we figure there's no harm in just chatting. These moments catch us when we're weak or distracted.
This is where willpower and good habits come to the rescue. The "grit" that kept those cadets at West Point -- the willpower to continue to strive for the final goal even when things got discouraging -- is essential in our struggle against sin. Duhigg explained that willpower becomes a habit "by choosing a certain behavior ahead of time and following that routine when an inflection point arrives." Willpower takes practice. And saying "no" to sin takes willpower.
Lent is when we focus on strengthening our willpower. Reminded, on Ash Wednesday, that we will eventually return to dust, we look toward Easter Sunday and our hope of heaven and take 40 days to strengthen our willpower. We practice saying "no" to ourselves by giving up things that we want -- for Catholics, that means not eating meat on Fridays as a community. Many also adopt a personal discipline, such as no chocolate or laying off the snooze button, to practice saying "no" to ourselves.
We know how important willpower and self-discipline are for success in life -- so it shouldn't be a great surprise that it's necessary for spiritual success as well. Lent is a spiritual bootcamp, a chance to grow in self-discipline, so that in denying ourselves in small ways we are practiced in saying "no" to ourselves when the destructive temptations show up.