Friday, December 30, 2016

Breaking Bad (Habits)

For years, Luke and I have been working diligently with Caleb on his pesky, persistent habit of biting his bottom lip. FOR YEARS.

To Caleb, I refer to it as a “habit.” However, in my own mind, I’ve unquestionably deemed it a BAD habit. It’s something he’s been doing on the regular since he was a wee, curly-haired toddler with a crooked walk and limited vocabulary. I thought for sure he’d outgrow it quickly, but here we are – he’s almost six years old, and he’s still an active bottom lip biter. I get frustrated and annoyed when I consider the road that this little habit may be paving for us in the future. I think of the overbite that he’s slowly but surely bound to develop, and the years of endless orthodontic visits and astronomical bills ahead of us.

Of course I want to put a stop to it. Of course I want him to quit. Like today.

It seems like we’ve tried virtually everything. Promises of treats and Legos and even a dog if he can keep his bottom lip out for an extended period of time. As much as he wants those things – I mean REALLY wants those things – these promises and rewards haven’t been enough.

Some days I think, is he even really trying that hard to quit? Other days, I can SEE how difficult it is for him. I mean, this practice is ingrained in him. It's second nature by now - as routine and familiar as scratching an itch or blinking his eyes. This is where the parenting role gets a little fuzzy for me – that blurry, nebulous line between, “Push him harder!” and “Give him a break – he’s only human.”

The other night Caleb was on couch, right before bedtime, snuggling under a soft blanket. Like usual, he slowly brought his top teeth over his lower lip and, also like usual, I promptly said, “Bottom lip mister!” which has become our familiar, three-word command to ask him to stop.

However, instead of just releasing his bottom lip and going about his business, Caleb seemed particularly discouraged. His eyes drew toward the ground as he sighed and said, “I’m never going to get a dog, am I?”

I was thrown, almost offended. I didn’t want him to give up just like that – to so easily accept defeat.

I said, “Don’t say that, Caleb. You CAN do it. Every time you feel the urge to bite your lip – just stop yourself.”

“Okay, mom,” he replied. “But it’s hard. I remember, then I get too comfortable and I forget again.”

If I were Oprah, I’d say this was my “AH-HA moment.” His candid, 6 year-old reasoning hit me like a ton of bricks. Or three tons. 

I stopped talking and gently ushered him over to me. He laid his little head in my lap and I said, “I know, Caleb. It’s really hard.”  

He knows what he’s supposed to do, but then he gets a little too comfortable and finds himself quickly forgetting.

I get you, buddy.

No matter how young or old, we know what it’s like to have a bad habit. And we know hard those habits are to quit. We KNOW.

Even as adults, we hold on to our habits - good or bad, harmful or innocuous – we hold on to them because habits are meant to be held. For a long time. They are warm blankets that securely envelope us, and we long to remain under them. Covered, snug and safe. We gravitate toward them because they are familiar and practiced – they instantly reward us with sights, sounds and sensations that assure our anxious minds that we have control in this unpredictable, crazy world. Habits are our predictable. Our friendly face. Our cozy.

We know the good reasons for stopping a bad habit, but sometimes it’s just not enough. Because you know what's even more compelling than our good reasons? Comfort. So we tell ourselves, "maybe tomorrow, I'll stop." And then tomorrow becomes a week, a month, a year ... 

Ours worlds have been carefully redesigned by human hands to ensure we have access to all things easy and comfortable. And while comfort can be good and helpful, it can also be that barrier restrains us, that holds us back, that prevents us from advancing, learning and growing. Comfort can introduce itself to us as a nice change of pace or luxury, but then quickly morph into an endless hole in which we hide for “just a little while longer” to escape the real, the difficult and the uneasy.

Comfort is alluring. It’s intoxicating. And it’s available to us for the taking.

A couple glasses of wine to calm your nervous mind. A pint of ice cream to mend your broken heart. A perfectly safe Facebook relationship to replace your harder, real-life, three-dimensional one. Material possessions so shiny and bright to numb your gut-wrenching pain.

We are filling holes. Swapping pain for pleasure. And who can blame us, really? It's so easy.

Whatever you call it – a habit, a vice, a security blanket, a fallback – we have them. And we can’t just wish them away. We can’t be woo’d by marshmallows or treats or toys to stop. When we repeatedly use these comforts to fill us up, we find that they are no longer things we chose. They somehow seep into our bones and become a part of us. They become our second skin.

A shaky hand that instinctively reaches for a bottle. An empty heart that inhales food fill it up. An anxious mind that hides behind a computer screen. A fearful soul who mindlessly shops and spends to feed a starving heart.

Caleb is trying not to bite his bottom lip. As he struggles and succeeds and experiences setbacks I need to remind myself that there IS victory in trying. There is hope in his honest expression that comfort is nice and change is challenging. His honesty is refreshing and precious and valuable. I pray that he keeps it well into adulthood. I pray that he acknowledges the difficulties in trying, but that he KEEPS TRYING. That’s boldness. That is victory. At 6 years old, my Caleb is already a bold and victorious little man. I should tell him that more. 

Breaking bad habits, escaping our comfort zones, CHANGING – it’s all a part of the human experience. It’s necessary. We aren’t just called to aimlessly do what we’ve always been doing just because it’s what we do. We aren’t called to fill our hearts and minds with whatever makes us feel good or calms us down or satisfies us at the time. We are called to walk the sometimes uncomfortable, painful bumpy road toward true sustenance, fulfillment, peace and Truth. Which means, we may have to break up with familiar, shed cozy and bid farewell to routine.  

Is it even worth it? I think so, because .. WHAT IF? What if ... outside of the thick walls and secure shelters we build for ourselves, exists a far better, safer place than we could ever imagine? What if ... beyond our self-made boundaries, is a beautiful, fulfilling world just waiting for us - the real us - big, gaping holes in our souls and all. 

And about those holes? What if we don't have to fill them ourselves? What if that was never our job? What if we could rest? 

Yes. What if we could actually sit down, give up and REST? 

What if we let God do His work? 

That seems worth it to me. Here's to the boldness and victory in trying.

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