Fighting The Puppet Masters of Habit

I’ve devoted a number of posts over the lifetime of this blog (16 months and counting) to the challenges and mysteries of change: How we change, why it’s hard, why there is in so many lives a large gap between  good intentions and the way we actually live. It’s a gap that cannot be explained by intelligence, education, social status or other factors as far as I know. Examine almost anyone’s life anywhere on the spectrum, and you will find the desire to change thwarted by the power of habit: What we’ve been doing, we tend to keep doing, even if doing so makes us dissatisfied, unhappy and ashamed of ourselves.

I’ve long been interested in the subject of change, but I went beyond mere interest to involvement and fascination when I tried about a year ago to quit eating meat. I began by spelling out three solid reasons for quitting the flesh habit. These were not mere rhetorical markers; they were three powerful reasons that had been nagging at me a while. I believed that laying them out publicly would be the first step on a successful journey of change. The three reasons are here if you would like to see them.

Well, the journey continues. Despite those excellent reasons, which I fully affirm, I haven’t completely kicked meat. I’ve cut down quite a bit, and I stopped red meat entirely three months ago, but I’d say some form of animal still makes its way into about 25%-30% of my meals.

As I noted here, this failure truly puzzles me. But at the same time it’s one of the best failures of my life. I’ve learned so much from it. To my amazement, an experiment that revealed my conflicted nature gave me a new sense, a new viewing angle I didn’t have before. The stark oppositions–sweet reason and moral conviction on one side vs. animal appetite, evolutionary biology and the weight of comfort-zone habit on the other side–lifted blinders from my eyes.

It’s been a difficult but valuable experience that has taught me a lot about myself and, via that microcosm, about people in general–about our comfort zones, our self-imposed but often unacknowledged  boundaries, our infinite ability to deceive ourselves.  Bloggers, TV bloviators and men in the street speak grandly and glibly of revamping entire political systems, radically changing the entrenched habits of millions, when many of us would have a hard time giving up sugar for two days or taking a quick walk around the block three times a week.  Everyone wants change, but nobody wants to change.

These days I hear every conversation about change–and they’re everywhere–in a new way. I don’t expect change; I expect stasis. Because of my difficulty in changing my behavior,  I am at once more sympathetic to and more skeptical of anyone who says, “I’ve really gotta quit/cut down/start/stop/get back to/get serious about ___________.”  When I hear such claims I always lend moral support, but I’m fully prepared to learn, a month or three months later, that the Change Talker did absolutely nothing to make the dream real. Did. Not. Take. Step. One.

 However, when anyone does throw off habit’s anchor and make a change, I’m their biggest cheerleader  because I know just how much they’ve accomplished and how big a price they paid. With the invisible puppet masters of Habit pulling our strings, it’s hard even to start changing, to say nothing of sustaining the change day by week by month.

I’ve also developed a new (to me, at least) Grand Interconnected Theory of Change (GITOC), spelled out here and elsewhere, which does away with the Big Change/Little Change dichotomy most of us carry around with us. In a nutshell, I now believe that all of our “change energy” comes from the same source and is the same energy:  In other words, the change energy you use to drop ten pounds or quit smoking is the same energy that you would use to rid yourself of racist thoughts, or to stop gambling, or to move from being a stay-at-home moper to a gregarious party animal. The person with weak change muscles will have a hard time cutting down on salt, a hard time reducing sarcastic remarks, and a hard time putting his new-found Christian beliefs into action. It’s all the same stuff.

Related to this is the idea that any change makes the next change easier. That’s why, in my view, the most “changeable” or change-ready presidential candidate this year was. . . (drumroll). . . Mike Huckabee. Why? Because in dropping more than 100 pounds and keeping it off for years, the Huck’s already been through the fire of one huge change. He’s already developed the daily discipline to stay on his new track. That doesn’t mean he’d make a good president,  but in a campaign season echoing with calls for change/real change/positive change/change we can believe in, he knows something big about change on a (no pun) gut level. I couldn’t support him because of his fundamentalist objections to science, but you know what?  He could change. I really think he could.  He proved it.

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