The Power of Will

As I drive on the highway in summer weather and see a motorbike whizz me by, often a thought crosses my mind. I wish I were riding one of them. Many times I have told my dear friends that I would love to ride across the country on a Harley. Please don’t get me wrong! I don’t want to be a biker in the traditional sense of the term. As a priest and as a young seminarian, my ordinary mode of travel in India was the motorcycle. Of course our Indian bikes were smaller and had much less power. Since gas was so expensive and cars were considered a luxury, priests could only have motorbikes. Once I snap out of my fantasy of riding across the US, I get more realistic. I haven’t ridden a motorbike in decades. Will I still remember how? I know I will remember. You never forget such things. It is part of you and once you get on the bike it will come right back to you.

You must be wondering where I am going with this. In this column I would like to discuss habits. In the last few years several books on will power have been published and one of them, The Power of Habit, by Charles Duhigg received many positive reviews. People use the word “habit” more in the negative than in the positive sense. They blame habit for some of their faults and sometimes fail to take responsibility. In other words we confess that we are weak of will. We can even claim that we are powerless before our temptations and the allurements of our world.

The marketplace would love it if we were powerless and weak. If the marketers and fashion trend-setters could somehow sway us into buying everything they promote, they would be ecstatic. The truth is that we constantly resist their advances and we make up our own minds. Nevertheless even though we are not powerless, often we do not make the right choices. Our will is not properly trained. We lack discipline.

We have to remind ourselves that for the most part we are creatures of habit. Without the role of habit in our daily life, living itself would become a laborious process. We would have to learn skills all over again each passing day. This is the reason why our parents try to teach us good habits when we are little. They train us to develop healthy habits of personal hygiene. What we don’t realize is that our moral life is also governed by habits.

St Thomas Aquinas, borrowing from the moral wisdom of Aristotle, proposed that we need to form good habits which are called virtues. If we keep choosing the good on a regular basis, good choices become a part of our nature. Through practice we can become good at riding a bicycle and even do some tricks while riding. In the same way, through practice doing the right thing can become second nature to us. Then when we are faced with temptation, we are more likely to choose the good rather than the bad. When we develop such good habits of being kind, loving, forgiving, patient, compassionate, honest, and pure, we become a virtuous person. Even though the struggle will go on until we die, we are more likely to make good rather than bad choices.

In order to develop such virtues and to avoid becoming slaves to vices, we need to train our will. First of all we need to get rid of the myth that we are helpless. We are not powerless victims of our sinful tendencies or the seductions of the outside world. One of our greatest attributes as humans is our capacity for self-transcendence. People may put us in prison and bind us in shackles, and yet in our spirit we can be free. We retain the power to choose.

Second, we need to follow the advice of great spiritual masters who give us two principles for training our will. They are: “Do well what you are supposed to do” (Age quod agis) and “Go against yourself” (Age contra). By doing our duty with diligence day after day, we develop a sense of discipline and resist laziness. Such diligence puts muscles on our will power. Second, we must go against our evil tendencies. We have to learn to say, “No!” In our culture of indulgence, we are constantly told that we must gratify ourselves immediately and that we must have every experience possible. Fighting our culture, we need to develop the power of no. We will learn to say “No” to illegitimate things by learning to say “No” to legitimate things. We call this mortification or renunciation. We must make a deliberate effort to fight laziness and comfort-seeking. We cannot become individuals of strong will power if we are unable to renounce our desire for comfort and convenience.

Only when someone has developed good habits which are called virtues, we can call him/her a person of character.  Hopefully we are teaching our children and our young people – both in our school and in our religious education program – how to grow into people of virtue. Forming our children in this fashion is one of the highest priorities for parenting.

May the Holy Spirit fortify our efforts to become men and women of virtue!

Mission Statement: As children of God, living in a Catholic community of faith, we are united by the Gospel message of Jesus Christ. Aware that all we have is gift and grace from our Heavenly Father, we strive to give of our time, talent and treasure to build His kingdom on earth. We live this mission, challenged by the Word, nurtured by the Sacraments, and enlivened by the Spirit, to serve our brothers and sisters in peace, justice and dignity. All are welcome on this journey.

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St. Paul of the Cross

320 South Washington Street
Park Ridge, IL 60068

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Phone: (847) 825-7605

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