Harbor Churches

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World Gone Crazy: The Character Cycle – part 3

November 15, 2015

Tom Elenbaas

One of my favorite books from my sabbatical two summers ago is entitled, “The Power of Habit,: why we do what we do in life and business” by Charles Duhigg. In the book, Duhigg, shares with us the process of habit formation and the power that habit has over our everyday lives.

In one sense, habits are essential. Without key habit formation, we would need to use much more of our brain power and activity to do simple tasks from walking to eating to writing our names. But over time, as we develop, we forge neural pathways within the brain that become easy ruts that we fall into without thinking. This ability of our brain to catalogue and repeat basic functions allows us to spend more brain power on higher level functioning abilities like rational thinking, love, decision-making, and discernment.

These habits can provide more important functioning responses, too, like the natural reaction of reaching for a child who is crying, responding quickly in times of danger while driving a car, or responding compassionately to a friend who is in need.

But habits can also be detrimental. Through the process of trigger, response, and reward (outlined in Duhigg’s book), we find ourselves falling into predictable patterns that develop pathways in our brain that can actually hurt us. These neural pathways get forged in ways that can ultimately hurt us, create ruts we fall into, and ultimately addictions we find hard to break.

Let’s start where it starts – with longings.

You and I have been designed with deep longings. We long for joy, intimacy, meaning, purpose, security, nourishment, love, and fun. Think of Maslow’s Hierarchy of needs, and those basic longings are hard-wired into our lives, and we desire them. These longings are good, designed by our Creator. They are part of what it means to be human. We have longings that are greater than mere animalistic survival longings. We long for grace, goodness, beauty, peace, and joy. When these longings are not fully being met, we find ourselves craving something to fulfill the longing. And so, though we long to be fulfilled, we crave, however, an end to our hunger. We long for intimacy; we crave a quick fix to soothe the ache. We long for a wonderful, healthy meal; we crave french fries. And the reality is, it’s much easier to satiate a craving than it is to address a longing. It’s easier to eat french fries than to eat a great salad. It’s easier to fulfill sexual cravings than it is to submit to the vulnerability of intimacy. It’s easier to numb the pain of disappointment with alcohol or marijuana than to face our inadequacies and build a strong security of self in the face of failure. It’s easier to garner attention by dressing up and putting makeup on than it is to be known deeply in a subsurface honesty.

And so, because it’s easier, quicker, and seemingly painless on the front end, we bypass our deep longings and feed the monster or our cravings. Soon, if we do this more than once, twice, three times… we begin the process of negative habit formation. We begin the process of trigger, response, reward. My longing leads to a craving triggered by that amazing smell of french fries. I respond, and eat a large fries filled with more salt than I need in a week. My body responds with an instant kick of satisfaction. Unfortunately, that kick not only doesn’t last, it also does detrimental things to my body over time. But it doesn’t matter. The next time I drive by McDonald’s and see that same logo and my olfactory glands register the smell of french fries, the trigger is tripped. I respond again and feel the immediate satisfaction that comes to assuage my deep hunger, if only for a moment. Now fries are dangerous, but probably not as dangerous as grabbing the glass or bottle, visiting the inappropriate internet site, meeting up with her again, or even swiping the credit card for the new purse, dress, or hunting gear. Often the satisfaction of our cravings becomes the self-imposed prison, the doorway we find ourselves beating a path towards. And these are real paths, real ways of doing life, real neural pathways. As the proverb says, “There is a way that appears right to a man but leads to death.”

So this is what we call the negative side of what we’ve named the character pathway. Below is a picture, but it goes like this: We have longings. We have cravings that promise to satisfy those longings. We develop practices to fulfill our cravings. When we do this again and again, we form habits. When these habits are negative, destructive, or hurtful to us over the long term, we call these habits vices. And we find ourselves trapped in a prison of our own making. One of the most important words to use for this is addiction. Our habits are addictions to satisfying our cravings, which can never really be satisfied without fulfilling the deep longings behind them. We then literally become someone new. Our character is formed as we live in a consistent way, even if it is consistently hurting us and the people around us. There is a way that seems right, but leads to death. That’s a good word.

Character Cycle

Stay tuned. This is not the end of the story. There is a positive side to the character cycle.