Our neighbor up on the lake was old and growing infirm, and he had let my dad know that he needed some yard work done. My dad sent me over. There’s nothing remarkable in this story except that I recall the first thing the old man said to me, “Are you feeling ambitious?”
I’m not sure why that question stuck, but it did. I answered the old man in the affirmative, which wasn’t so close to the truth. I did the work, but it wasn’t a bang-up job. Maybe not even the bare minimum. I feel bad about it now, but not so much then.
This was a regularly occurring tendency with me, laziness, and so it’s a good thing I grew up under my father who wouldn’t stand for it (I tried not to make his job easy, though). And then from home into the military which also wasn’t inclined to dismiss half-assed efforts.
Laziness in the form of non-ambition with me was a habit, a bad habit (and certainly not the only one I ever had), which was turned around only by diligent instruction. I say “turned around”, but it’s always there ready to creep back. But I keep it at bay with another habit, a good one, which is the Just Get It Done theory of work, a theory which explains itself in its name (it is surprisingly effective).
Habits are not something you do all the time, but only most or all of the time in certain circumstances. A man might have the good habit of checking his rope for frays, but only when he climbs a mountain. Or he might have the bad habit of boasting, but only when he attends his class reunions. This implies you can avoid bad habits in two ways: avoid the circumstance, or eliminate the habit altogether. Eschewing circumstance is easy enough to understand. If you’re worried about getting drunk, don’t go to the bar.
Changing the habit is different. The thing to notice about habits is that they are like political arguments. They are the premises which are always assumed, the givens, the unquestioned basis for the start of any argument. They are the conditions which are just there and which aren’t questioned because they’re not really thought of. They are the launching points. Habits are mental reflexes.
This is why breaking a bad habit is hard labor. You have to stop what you were about to do each and every time, and then go over all the assumptions which convinced you what you were about to do was right. And since the number of assumptions behind much of what we do are many, the work required to do this thinking can be immense and painful. You have the goal immediately and front of you, and the map is clear, yet you must stop and wait. It’s easier to proceed.
This is not news. Aristotle said “moral virtue comes about as a result of habit” and habits are require work: “the virtues we get by first exercising them, as also happens in the case of the arts as well. For the things we have to learn before we can do them, we learn by doing them, e.g. men become builders by building and lyreplayers by playing the lyre; so too we become just by doing just acts, temperate by doing temperate acts, brave by doing brave acts.”
This, then, is the case with the virtues also; by doing the acts that we do in our transactions with other men we become just or unjust, and by doing the acts that we do in the presence of danger, and being habituated to feel fear or confidence, we become brave or cowardly. The same is true of appetites and feelings of anger; some men become temperate and good-tempered, others self-indulgent and irascible, by behaving in one way or the other in the appropriate circumstances. Thus, in one word, states of character arise out of like activities. This is why the activities we exhibit must be of a certain kind; it is because the states of character correspond to the differences between these. It makes no small difference, then, whether we form habits of one kind or of another from our very youth; it makes a very great difference, or rather all the difference.
Since men do change at least sometimes for the better, Aristotle’s first judgment that learning good habits while young makes a very great difference is closer to the mark.
Quitting a bad habit “cold turkey” isn’t the only way to change, as our good saint Aquinas says: “repeated acts cause a habit to grow. If, however, the act falls short of the intensity of the habit, such an act does not dispose to an increase of that habit, but rather to a lessening thereof.” But bad habits are only finally “destroyed altogether by long cessation from act”. Skipping the dessert once does not eliminate a sweet tooth. The even better news is that some “habits are infused by God into man”. He can infuse “into man even those habits which can be caused by a natural power.” These are infusions worth asking for.