By Jane Tawel
December 5, 2020
Some habits are hard to break and some habits are hard to make. In so much else that we have lost in terms of ethics and morality, I think we have lost the idea that there is a difference between a mistake and a sin. And consequently, we have lost this idea that good personal qualities are not a matter of hoping for them but of practicing them.
A sin is anything we know to be less than good or right and something that can hurt ourselves or another, and we do it anyway, purposefully or carelessly. There is also a difference between a feeling, a character trait, and a virtue. A virtue is something that we create, nurture, act upon, not out of whole-cloth, but out of that which every human being has the possibility of knowing and striving for. One of the most commonly known vices is gluttony, and yet while we may easily see it in others, we rarely see it in ourselves until after we’ve eaten the giant bag of Red Hot Doritos, swilled it down with a six-pack and we get the stomach-ache we deserve, at which point we still don’t see it as a sin against our body as much as a “mistake”. A common virtue is patience and yet we judge our boss or teacher for being impatient with our ignorance, while we attribute our own snapping and losing patience with the faults of the other person or just being “tired or hungry”.
We, at least in our Western world of privilege and ease, have mostly lost the idea that while we cannot control the feelings of an instant, we certainly can control the actions that come out of those feelings. But we can only do so, if we have practiced controlling and shaping and substituting bad actions for good actions. Much like working out with weights to increase one’s ability to perform at a sport, we must make the practice of good habits part of a daily routine (with time off for good behavior or Sabbaths or rest). And practicing to be good is important, much like practicing a sport or an instrument is important to be ready to sprint or perform when the moment of action arrives. You can’t hope you’ll win or flawlessly play, you have to have made habits that allow you to respond without thinking. Deciding to choose to live virtuously is a life-long commitment; much as professional musicians never stop practicing scales, we must see our lives as any artist would see her abilities to create. The glorious and divine thing about being human, is that it is never too late to start being creative with who we want to be. Today is another day in which I can see myself as the artist of my own life, worthy of practice in the virtues that make me the best creation I can be. If we focused on the idea that humans are truly creatures of habit, then we might understand the insidiousness of the habits we form for evil and the habits we form for good. Then we can understand the truly divine power we each have to break and make habits.
A bad action, whether it is over-indulging ourselves or gossiping about a neighbor, becomes what we might call a sin against self or sin against another, when we let an action become an un-examined habit. As an example, from my own life, over the past several years I have felt a responsibility to know about the evils and lies of our political leaders and to speak out against those things. However, lately, reading and thinking and worrying and angsting over those things has become a habit, something I cannot seem to stop doing, even with the hope of change around the corner, even as it has effected my peace, even as it has eaten up time that could be better spent in other pursuits. There has become something perversely pleasurable in wallowing in the doo-doo of others. This is ultimately not good for me, so when I keep indulging in it, I am sinning against myself. It is also however, not good for my brother or sister, when I keep beating my head against the wall of their stubborn stupidity or unethical choices to try to change or help them. I am a habitual “helper” but when you try to help someone who doesn’t want your help, it is a sin.
To break these bad habits, I have gotten myself into, I have to try to form different habits. So rather than beginning my morning with the various newspapers I subscribe to, I spend it reading spiritually invigorating books or by some time with silent meditation and prayer. I don’t turn on my computer. I find a space with a small lamp’s circle, a pencil for making notes, and a “teacher” whose written words energize my understanding and determination to make the world a better place and make the places in my own soul better as well. Getting outside and walking in the beauty of Nature is also good. Doing something anonymously for someone who is hungry, in prison, or lonely is also good. Practicing non-aggrandizing kindness, especially to those who make me mad or grumpy or who won’t appreciate it or praise me, is an excellent way to form a different habit of kindness and helpfulness. Actions that help me break habits that hurt me or hurt others are choosing to become ethics in action. Those actions become virtues when they become habits. Otherwise, they are too often “one offs”, reflective of how I feel, what I’m “in the mood for”, how much I care, or whether any one else is “looking”; and so they are not forces “at the ready” when I am “not feeling it”. Virtues are good habits that take over even when we do not will them to.
The other thing that for me is completely necessary is to truly return to an idea that I am not only not alone in the Universe, I am being watched. We have lost the idea of the “Constant Onlooker”. This may be because we think a belief system is enough to “save us” no matter how we behave for some future reality; but of course we should be humbly reminded that “even devils believe in God and Goodness and tremble”. It may be because we have never felt there is anything other than our molecules existing in a particular meaningless space and time with other molecules. But whether it is the foolishness of a morphed and broken religion or the sadness of an atheism, to have lost the idea that there is somehow something Divine that takes notice of us humans and our Earth, is a great tragedy and has much to do with how we have devolved to this place in time on our poor beleaguered planet and our insensitive, insensible, irrational, and sinful treatment of the planet and all creatures living on it.
Whether my Constant Onlooker is a God, or the Cosmos, or my Passed Relative, or the Angels, we have a great throbbing need to feel watched over with care. And when we think we are so very alone and that No One is watching, overseeing, caring, — yes — even judging or orchestrating us to live out a better way — when we choose to idolize the primacy of self-satisfaction and momentary feelings, of one-upmanship or passive/ aggressive complaining — then we truly choose to be alone in a Universe screaming for us to recognize that there is an Onlooker of human behavior, down to the very individual that you are and that I am.
It is often difficult to fight the depression that I feel when I feel that I do not matter, but there is another way. I can form the habit of worshipping That Who, that El Roi who sees me — ME — little old who I am but more importantly who I can BE — ME. To be seen is the first step away from breaking the habits of vice and towards making the habits of virtue.
Vice is about me, myself and I alone in the Universe. Virtue is about a Community of Reality in which I am not only not alone, but I am so important, so valued, so looked after, so much a part of The Whole, that my every singular thought and deed matters. While my individual mistakes and sins may not matter in the long run, the habits I form and whether they are formed for Good or for Evil, matter in a Grand Scheme of that which I can only glimpse and imagine.
To get started: This chart of Virtues and Vices is attributed to Aristotle. I could meditate on just the titles for hours.
We might look at these vices and virtues side by side with the words of that other great sage, St. Augustine, who among other things said, “I “Sin” / Err, therefore, I am”. To be human, to actually be the best human we can be, is to understand that we don’t just “goof up”, but we sin, and sin boldly and sin habitually. When we recognize that there is Someone, that some of us call “God”, who is creative and imaginative enough to give humans the ability to choose Life — life abundant and whole and free — then we recognize that same Being Who Loves us enough to perpetually create in and through us, is a SomeOne Who is watching over us, is looking out for us, is there and here for us, and is trying every which way to point to The Way — The Tao. There is Something in the Universe that cares about my every action; and rather than letting that be a heavy burden or a fear of judgement or a way for those in power to control me as organized religion and political powers have so often done and still do, I can allow that wisdom to free me from vice and habits of negativity that can ruin my life and the lives of others. Then I can open up my heart and soul, my body and mind, and my actions, deeds, and words to replace the negative habits with positive virtues and the good habits that will create new life in me and open up more room for love, both for myself and for others.
It is not enough to recognize the vices in others, even if we have worked hard not to allow those same vices in ourselves. The lack of a vice is simply a lack, a negative sum, not a positive one. I must of course look firmly at any habitual negative action or thought I have and try to pull it out by the roots and toss it in the dung heap. But I must also see any open spaces or blank lines in my ledger and replace the emptiness with virtue. It is not enough not to sin, but we must seize our responsibility for action and make it a personal habit; for as The Great Teacher said:
“Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples, “The theologians and the leaders in power — go ahead and do and observe whatever they tell you, but do not do the works they do. For they preach, but do not practice. They foist on others heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to move them with their finger. They do all their deeds to be seen by others. For they love the place of honor at feasts and the best seats in the synagogues, churches, and halls of power; and they thrive on greetings in the marketplaces, news coverage, and being called important titles by others. But you are not to be called by important titles, for you have one Teacher, and you are all brothers and sisters. And call no man your father/priest/leader on earth, for you have one Father/High Priest/Leader, who is in All the Universe, all the Heavenly Places. Neither be called instructors, for you have one instructor, the Christ. The greatest among you shall be your servant. Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.” (paraphrased slightly from Matthew 23)
I have lately retracted the finger I have had pointing towards others and tried to focus more on the four fingers pointing back at myself. Rather than being a negative experience, making me feel bad about myself, I find it energizing, comforting, and oh so very hopeful of all I can still accomplish and be within my very little own self. Much like when the weather changes and I can do some serious “Spring Cleaning”, I am ready to clean out some space in my heart, mind and soul, in order to make room for something better, cleaner, brighter, truer, and nobler; and to practice intentionally the greatest virtue of all — that of loving both self and others. And in this way, I long and desire to become more in tune and loving of The One Who Sees and Cares.
I know it is awfully old-fashioned of me, but to see the tendencies of making and breaking habits as something as eternally important as choosing vice or virtue, makes me feel much less alone in The Universe. The more I see my own sins and broken pieces, the more I hold out hope for Wholeness. The more I see the errors on my life’s page, the more I sense I am a part of a Great Story of Our Humanity, in which I play, if only a small and unknown character, a still quite valuable part. Like the character who is a catalyst in a novel, I hope to not understand but simply obey and do that which is my own ethical, virtuous-leaning part to play in The Story. Like tuning an old piano, I hope to change the dissonance of certain vices and make in-tune new habits of virtue. In this way, I do not play a solo performance, but am part of that great Orchestra lead by the Director of All Directors. Today, I shall practice creating more harmony in my own life, and humbly, prayerfully, hopefully in the lives of others, and I shall listen to and add to The Song.
Coda. The End. Amen.
© Jane Tawel 2020