We all want a Cinderella story. We want a night at a ball that changes our whole lives. We want a perfect prince to take us instantaneously out of our suffering, and we want our lives perfect now.
So we make New Year’s resolutions, choosing to become idealized versions of ourselves. And inevitably, we fail. We try to become healthy overnight: “New Year, New Me,” we tell ourselves.We watch life hack videos and read articles titled “This One Habit Will Change Your Life!”
And when, two weeks after making these decisions we have failed to live up to them, we encounter what is called “Blue week” – the week with the most divorce proceedings, more people signing up for counseling, and a huge increase in seasonal depression and overall dissatisfaction with ourselves and our lives.
So if real change is not made overnight, how is it made?
If we look to Aristotle, we find his hypothesis that virtue is created through . If someone wants to eat healthily [virtuously], this is only accomplished through changing his habits.
But what is a habit? The world Aristotle uses here is ethos, which is the root of our word for ethics, and refers to one’s character. Our habits, or things we do because we have done them many times before, are the basis of our character, and yet our character is the basis of why we do what we do.
So the question is, if our character forms our habits, and our habits form our character, how to we transfer from a cycle of poor habits and poor character to one of good habits and good character? This brings us back to the question we asked at first – how do we shape ourselves into virtuous people?
Lots of ancient philosophy suggests that we do this through effort and contemplation. It suggests that we do it through willpower. Sometimes, it emphasizes the efforts of the individual, but often it suggests that we can improve ourselves through community, and that other people can strengthen us and guide us into living well.
Some strands of modern psychology often come across as suggesting that no change is necessary except a change to acceptance of yourself and others. Sometimes it parallels ancient philosophy in advocating for more of a pull-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps approach.
But what do we do when we can’t even muster up the desire to want to change? What if our communities are as corrupted as we are? Perhaps this is a part of why we need a savior.
But I do not intend to communicate that accepting your savior will change you into the ideal version of yourself instantly. The process of developing virtue is exactly that – a process. A process requires time. But because it takes so long to develop virtue, it is also not so easily demolished. Because of the time and suffering through which we develop virtue, we can trust that even in the midst of everything, progress is being made. So I will leave you to contemplate the words of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, which are so applicable to this process of growth:
“Above all, trust in the slow work of God.
We are quite naturally impatient in everything
to reach the end without delay.
We should like to skip the intermediate stages.
We are impatient of being on the way to something
unknown, something new.
And yet it is the law of all progress
that it is made by passing through
some stages of instability—
and that it may take a very long time.
And so I think it is with you;
your ideas mature gradually—let them grow,
let them shape themselves, without undue haste.
Don’t try to force them on,
as though you could be today what time
(that is to say, grace and circumstances
acting on your own good will)
will make of you tomorrow.
Only God could say what this new spirit
gradually forming within you will be.
Give Our Lord the benefit of believing
that his hand is leading you,
and accept the anxiety of feeling yourself
in suspense and incomplete.”