Mark Twain tells us that New Year’s Day is the accepted time to make your annual good resolutions. Next week, he says, you can begin paving hell with them as usual, because of course, that road is made of good intentions. The problem, of course, being that our best of intentions are worth precisely nothing unless we actually act on them. So we all make our lists – this is the year I finally go on that diet, that I start exercising, that I kick that bad habit, wake up earlier, eat more bacon, whatever. We all do it, and we all know we’re going to fail, and so to achieve maximum absurdity, we promise to stop eating sweets and watch less television on the exact same day we’re about to eat five different kinds of pie while watching football before finishing off the Christmas cookies. And this situation is exactly why grand intentions fail, because we expect to go from one specific behavior to another very quickly through sheer willpower, but we have trained ourselves over decades to behave in a different way. Inertia will always win.
There’s a psychological model for how to successfully change a behavior.
It begins with Precontemplation, the stage in which we cease with denial and examine the problem. We re-think our behavior and ask questions – Have I tried to make this change in the past? Why did it not work?
The second stage is Contemplation. In this stage, we become aware of the benefits of making a change, acknowledging the cost and effort that will be involved. Many of us get to this stage and stay here for a really long time. It’s the reason why we go take the same sins to confession for years and talk about how embarrassed we are about them. We’re willing to acknowledge how destructive they are but aren’t ready to make the effort to change. The questions to ask ourselves during this phase are – Why do I want to change? What is preventing me from changing?
The third stage is Preparation. This is where we make a plan. We write down goals and decide on small changes that will move us toward that larger goal. Let’s say you want to run a 5k this year. You might start with simply getting outside each day and walking for 15 minutes, then doing a bit of running, building up to a specific race you would like to complete. The more information you get, the better, and the more encouragement you can get, the better.
Finally, there is the Action stage. Notice you don’t actually do anything until the final stage. If we jump right to action, we will fail. If you decide to run a 5k and go out the first day and run as fast as you can as long as you can with no training plan, you’ll hurt yourself and/or find the experience so unpleasant you’ll quit after a few days.
So, that’s the stages of change model. You can see how effective it potentially is for us in our moral lives as we strive to imitate Christ. What’s fascinating about it, though, is that failure is built into the model. If you follow it, you would be expected to retreat from the action stage to contemplation many times, repeating it until the change becomes permanent. This is because real, lasting change is difficult to achieve.
In the Church, there has always been the understanding that our actions lag behind our intentions. It’s why we hurt the ones we love, or honestly claim we want to be saints even while we continue to fall into old vices. If you feel like you’re projecting a false persona to the world, that you are a Catholic who strives to follow Christ but you know that you often fall far short from what you claim to be, that doesn’t make you a hypocrite, it makes you a human being. Human beings are imperfect. We struggle. We so desperately want to be one way but then, almost against our will, we find that we act in another way.
There are a few takeaways from this.
First, don’t stop striving to put sin behind. Never give up on following Jesus. The stages of change includes failure. That doesn’t mean we should quit, only that we need to stay humble, seek God’s forgiveness in confession, and take that grace he gives us to recommit to achieving our goals. When it comes to making a lasting change, intentions and actions go hand-in-hand. The Church has always taught this, and in the sacraments we already have the tools to help us make progress. Through the sacraments, it becomes abundantly clear that God will never give up on us.
Second, yes it is true that a Christian is a person who strives. We strive for personal holiness, and to please God, to love those around us, to make it heaven. But, even more importantly, a Christian is a person who surrenders. We throw ourselves on the mercy of God, knowing that, while we are not able to save ourselves, if we give our lives to him, he is powerful to save. He is the only avenue to redemption, and his arms are wide open.
Today, on this Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God, recall the way in which Mary, who is the Church, is like any other mother. This weekend, I’m sure myriad children went out with their brand new roller skates they’d been given for Christmas, and their mothers told them to not go too fast too soon. Those children ignored their mother’s advice and came inside crying with a bloody knee. Those mothers didn’t respond by saying, “I told you so.” She responded by taking the child on her lap, hugging the child, and carefully bandaging up the wound. This is how our Mother the Church is with us. We went out overconfident, with unrealistic expectations for ourselves, not prepared for the way in which sin gets a hold of us and how weak we really are. We’ve returned to Church with a bloody knee. We have neglected to listen to our Mother, and the result is that we are back in confession, back here asking God to help us out yet again. Mary, every time, will take us in her arms and comfort us. Jesus, every time, will forgive us and feed us. He knows how our story ends if we remain faithful, that the change we seek has already taken seed in our heart, because that is where the crucified and risen Christ lives forever.