Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Giving up on willpower

So, according to this site this is 'Ditch New Years Resolutions Day.' Who knew?? And lucky for me, I didn't even make any! :)

Even though I'm not a "New Years" resolutions type person, I have over time made attempts at 'resolving' to do or not do certain things. Whether it is establishing new rhythms and practices or trying to break habits and addictions, I think we've all probably set ourselves at willpowers mercy before.... and probably ended up with the same result as a New Years resolution: Failure.

I have recently been in one of those black holes resulting from a wasted willpower wrangle. Over the last few years I started drinking too much, and exercising too little. It left me not only a tad overweight, but also feeling like a failure because my attempts to change just kept falling flat. So one day I started going back over how I had changed earlier in my life - when it seemed to work.

Through most of my 54 years on this earth I seem to have struggled with just about every kind of habit or addiction imaginable. There's a pretty fine line between the two, and although I'm no authority on the subject, I'm going to speculate that in the most general of loose definitions perhaps addictions are those habits we've gotten sucked into to the point they are unbreakable through willpower alone (son Isaac recently wrote a paper on the limit our own choice has in breaking addiction). In that sense, over the years I have been addicted to caffeine, cigarettes, drugs, alcohol, porn, sugar, exercise, and it probably doesn't stop there (though I don't think you can qualify my strange fixation with white t-shirts in this category). With all of those I have had only limited success fighting them with willpower. So I think maybe what we need to do is GIVE UP on willpower. At least on its own. It's also worth noting that addictions are merely symptoms of a deeper issue, whether that be emotional, physical, chemical or otherwise.

The most dramatic change in my life took place when I was in my mid-20's. Life had gotten a little out of hand, what with being young and married and living a party lifestyle, then having two children pop onto the scene. Jane's transformation was perhaps a little more gradual (though not any less dramatic). Carrying a child for nine months will do that to you. As for me, well, I didn't have that luxury/burden. So it took me longer to realize that life had gotten too out of control.

I can remember when Jane started taking the kids to church and I was left on Sunday mornings to hangover alone. Slowly I started to realize that some serious decisions needed made. I would ride my bike through the countryside and let my mind wander. I'd sit and make lists of things I needed to quit or start. Eventually I resolved to be a better person. I was going to be a husband and father and take responsibility for my actions. I started attending church with Jane, I changed my habits and the scenery of my life. I read the Bible and prayed. Willpower was winning. For awhile.

As I thought about this recently, it occurred to me that my "conversion experience" wasn't the day I went forward in church and accepted Jesus "into my heart" though. That was my part, but true change came over me on the night I admitted that willpower was not enough. I gave it up. Actually, I gave it over to God.

I probably don't replay this enough, but it was my 26th birthday. Son Isaac was a few months old and in the hospital. Sometime during the night he had an episode where the doctors called in life-flight to take him to a bigger hospital because they weren't equipped to handle a tiny baby who stopped breathing. I was roused by the commotion and told to leave the room. So I went to the parking lot and, before I'd done anything else, I lit up a cigarette and leaned on my rusted out '73 Torino. Life had just thrown a bucket of puke all over the face of my willpower and I didn't know what to do. So I looked up and in what was perhaps my most powerful of prayers ever before or since I found myself in one of those surreal moments where it was like I could see beyond the cosmos... and I said slowly, plainly, and simply... "Help. I cannot do this, so I am giving you control of my life." It wasn't a panicked or desperate cry, it wasn't rehearsed or even thought out. It just came. The most real and long moment I'd ever experienced in my life. And what came with it was this all-encompassing peace... that made little to no sense to me at the time but the joy and release of the moment was not from this world. That was my true moment of conversion. That was when I first saw God as more than an idea or a genie or someone people just referred to. I gave "up" on my own willpower, and trusted Him.

It actually does sound a little cliche to read about it - without remembering the experience fully. Yet when I think about the last couple years and the struggles I've faced more recently, it makes a little more sense why even praying in my own willpower hasn't seemed to help. There's nothing wrong with willpower and resolving to be or do better, but coming face-to-faith with God.... I'm not sure that can happen until you've completely given up; surrendered; recognized that we are utterly powerless apart from that Center of our soul. At least that seems to be the case in my life.

So, while it's still somewhat the beginning of a new year, what can I make of this?
  1. First, I believe change does require an intentional desire on my part. If I don't recognize the need to change, it seems kind of silly to do so. The new year is a logical time to take stock of our lives. It's a good time to ask where am I "winning," and where am I "losing"?
  2. Willpower has its place. I need to keep lists; Journal; Have an accountability partner. Giving in to addictions/habits is easy. Overcoming them is hard work, but it's doable.
  3. Give up. I guess it's probably Fitch's fault I started thinking about all this. He talks a lot about surrender in his book 'Faithful Presence.' Surrendering to a faith community; to the Spirit's work; to the finished work of Jesus; ala, to God. I think it's in this surrender that willpower morphs into faithpower, and I wish I could explain it but I can't. It's something 'beyond' us. It reminds me of Peterson's version of Matthew 5:3 "You're blessed when you're at the end of your rope. With less of you there is more of God and his rule." Somehow it requires giving up, which sort of goes against most of what we've been taught all our lives.
I'm going to practice meditating on this section of Scripture for several days; maybe weeks.

Matthew 5:1-12
1-2 When Jesus saw his ministry drawing huge crowds, he climbed a hillside. Those who were apprenticed to him, the committed, climbed with him. Arriving at a quiet place, he sat down and taught his climbing companions. This is what he said:
“You’re blessed when you’re at the end of your rope. With less of you there is more of God and his rule.
“You’re blessed when you feel you’ve lost what is most dear to you. Only then can you be embraced by the One most dear to you.
“You’re blessed when you’re content with just who you are—no more, no less. That’s the moment you find yourselves proud owners of everything that can’t be bought.
“You’re blessed when you’ve worked up a good appetite for God. He’s food and drink in the best meal you’ll ever eat.
“You’re blessed when you care. At the moment of being ‘care-full,’ you find yourselves cared for.
“You’re blessed when you get your inside world—your mind and heart—put right. Then you can see God in the outside world.
“You’re blessed when you can show people how to cooperate instead of compete or fight. That’s when you discover who you really are, and your place in God’s family.
10 “You’re blessed when your commitment to God provokes persecution. The persecution drives you even deeper into God’s kingdom.
11-12 “Not only that—count yourselves blessed every time people put you down or throw you out or speak lies about you to discredit me. What it means is that the truth is too close for comfort and they are uncomfortable. You can be glad when that happens—give a cheer, even!—for though they don’t like it, I do! And all heaven applauds. And know that you are in good company. My prophets and witnesses have always gotten into this kind of trouble.