The Habit of Virtue


For twenty years of my life – from age seventeen to thirty-seven – I struggled with an addiction to nicotine. It was an on-again, off-again relationship, but I never managed to go longer than a year at most without using the drug in various forms.

When I started getting more serious about my prayer life, I realized I had made an idol of nicotine. I would chase it in a spirit of dependency and get anxious and out-of-sorts when it was not available. If I did not have it at 1 am and it was pouring rain, I would schlep to my car and drive to find a 24-hour gas station that sold it. It was a powerful habit that weakened my will, compromised my physical and mental wellbeing, and made me feel effete as a man, to be ruled so strongly by something so worthless. I wanted it out of my life, but I did not know how to get rid of it.

Truth from science

I read two books, both secular, that were valuable tools in breaking this habit and changing my paradigm of how I regard this vice. This is not a book review, and not ultimately about smoking, per se, but I make reference to these books to illustrate a point about how vice is rooted in fear of suffering, and how its counterpart, virtue, can be strengthened by habit.

The first book that was helpful to me was written by a man named Allen Carr, with a gimmicky title: Allen Carr’s Easy Way to Stop Smoking. I found it to be different from other books on the topic in this regard: the power of the “easy way” lay in recognizing that the only thing keeping a person from quitting is fear, and fear is not a good reason to stay addicted to something because it is, in essence, a no-thing. Carr was the only one I came across on the subject who wrote about this. People who are addicted to a substance do not smoke/drink/use, etc. because it is pleasurable, per se – they use because they are afraid of the withdrawal that comes from not using. The “pleasure” of the addiction is actually, simply, the avoidance of pain. I used lozenges, patches, and e-cigarettes for a good long time as a crutch nicotine replacement, but these are popular only because the manufacturers convince you that you cannot live without the drug. If you leave it behind, they no longer profit from you.

The Devil markets sin in the same way – he promises relief/escape from pain (through pleasure), but he never in fact delivers. The cycle perpetuates itself, and you become convinced you cannot live without your addiction: abusive partner; drugs; wealth; affirmation and attention; sensual obsession, etc. Free will is an awesome and terrible thing, a great gift that takes on renewed significance when you are literally grinding your teeth trying to exorcise it for God’s glory and your own survival, when it costs, and when it hurts.

The second book I read that really helped me to leave this habit behind was a book entitled, The Power of Habit, by Charles Duhigg. Using scientific evidence to show how habit develops and works, he asserts that to change a habit, you must keep the old cue and deliver the old reward, but insert a new routine. Habits can be acquired and can also be undone or changed. Do anything enough (such as, put a cigarette to your mouth 10,000 times a year; check your smartphone 1,000 times a day; bite your nails, etc.), and that behavior will become a habit.

Duhigg noted an interesting case study of a 71-year-old man who had experienced almost total short-term memory loss. However, something interesting happened after his wife began taking him for walks around the block. One day the man went off on his own, and his wife could not find him. Because he could not remember where he lived or any markers or identifiers, she was sure she had lost him. It turns out he had taken the walk around the block himself and showed up fifteen minutes later wondering why she was so upset. It was by the power of habit – the reinforcement of doing the same thing over and over again to the point of it becoming unconscious – that he was able to get home.

Altering bad habits

According to the author, “You can’t extinguish a bad habit, you can only change it.” I found his four-step solution to the problem of bad habits, from a scientific point of view, very helpful: 1) Identify the routine; 2) Experiment with rewards; 3) Isolate the cue; 4) Have a plan. I also wondered if it was applicable to the building up of virtue in the life of the Christian disciple.

Virtue, according to Augustine is “a good habit consonant with our nature,” and the Catechism states that a virtue is a “habitual and firm disposition to do the good” (CCC, 1803). Of course we are not able to overcome sin and sinful habits by sheer will power alone (perhaps this is the divergent point between scientific studies and the exercise of faith). Virtue is acquired when we make room for it by pushing sin out, trusting God and disposing ourselves to His grace, and doing the hard work of self-denial and mortification to accomplish His work in us.

One can see the sin pattern explicitly when it comes to lust, for example. One can fall into a routine of sin, which offers a temporary pleasurable reward on cue. So, knowledge is power. Knowing or identifying the routine can be the first step. Does your eye lead you to sin? Practice “bouncing the eyes” (looking away at the first moment of temptation). Is it a routine of internet pornography every Friday night because you have no friends? Volunteer, get out of your comfort zone and get involved with something constructive.

When it comes to reward, the Syrian abbot Chaeremon, as St. John Cassian remembers, explained that it is far better to avoid sin from love of virtue than from fear of punishment. The one who loves virtue is constant; the one who fears punishment goes back to sin as soon as the fear is removed. So, while prayer may be rote and arduous initially, when practiced enough, it becomes like the man with the short-term memory loss who remembers his way home by way of habit. Then, through prayer, we learn to love God and love virtue, so that it becomes its own reward.

When it comes to cues, these can be “triggers” tied to the routine, but may come from outside them as well. As it says in scripture, “Let no one say when he is tempted, ‘I am being tempted by God’; for God cannot be tempted by evil, and He Himself does not tempt anyone. But each one is tempted when he is carried away and enticed by his own lust” (James 1:13-14). We will face temptations until the day we die, but knowing what tricks the devil is using by way of illumination gained in prayer is helpful to isolate such cues that lead us to sin.

Occasions of sin and true wisdom

The Church speaks of such “occasions of sin” as making temptations worse. So, finally, having a plan might consist of some suffering that comes part and parcel with breaking the link to the sin – e.g., losing friends who are a bad influence, putting filters on your computer, changing your routine, and experiencing bodily discomfort. As it says in scripture, “My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge” (Hosea 4:6). Asking God to help us formulate a plan to turn away from sinful habits and for the grace to carry it out can help us in moving away from sin and adopting virtue.

Augustine had no problem adopting wisdom from the ancients (neo-Platonic philosophy, for one) and adapting it to the Christian life. We, likewise, do not have to fear scientific and secular things outright, especially when they can be used in service of the Christian life and in cultivating the virtues. In my case, I adopted a paradigm shift in recognizing the lie of fear that keeps us enslaved and in learning the power of habit from two secular authors, and I adapted these truths to my spiritual life as a Christian. The ultimate goal in the Christian life is union with God, to love Him and serve Him. Virtue is its own reward, because in adopting a habit of virtue, we grow in holiness, and in so doing, we get closer to Him who is our lasting peace, our source of happiness, and our everlasting joy. God will sometimes use a “by whatever means necessary” (crisis, loss, hitting rock bottom) approach with us, especially when we are stubborn or obstinate, to lead us to repentance and metanoia. We will always have to wrestle against concupiscence and struggle against the flesh, but by grace, we have everything we need to accomplish the work that Christ tasks us with – to serve Him in this life and to be happy with Him in the next.

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