I will vs. I want
Jonah 3:1-5, 10; Mark 1:14-20
“Immediately they left their nets”. Wow, sounds like they were really spiritual men, until you read the second time this happened. Jesus sees James and John, his brother, mending their fishing nets with the old man. Immediately they leave the old man, with all the gear still to fix, and they run after some stranger they just barely met because it looks more interesting.
Every father of a teenager will recognize this bold move. “Adios Padre” and I’m left holding all the gear that still has to be fixed and stowed away. And what is it about kids, even after they grow up, when they return to your house, they still don’t have time to pick up the dishes or take out the trash? “Padre, would love to help, gotta go.” “Dad, something has come up”.
Before we move on to extol the virtue of making a commitment to Jesus and following in his way, perhaps just a moment of empathy for all of the Dad’s and Mom’s deserted back home, picking up the mess that is left behind. Okay, moving right along…
As it turns out commitment is really quite critical for us achieving a meaningful life. It is what gets us to set a plan, follow through, and actually achieve a goal. We want to develop this in our children. We know that we need it in our lives as adults. We need strength of character to stick with difficult goals, to gut it on through to the other side.
And then there is this other side of us. I want. I want is primordial. We feel it when we are ready to conquer, desire welling up in us. We return to it when we are nervous. I opened the door on my grandson, John John, when he was about 8 months. Scared him. He starts crying in a panic. His Mom picks him up, soothes him. He is still freaked out. What does he want? To nurse.
When he gets older, his therapist will call it stress eating. To John John, the solution to almost every problem at 8 months was to eat something.
When we are young, we don’t really manage our “I want”. Mostly, parents and especially grandparents, just seem to indulge it. “Here have this candy. Here, have a new toy. Here, watch this cartoon. Here, check out this video game.”
But then as you get older, you realize that you can’t just keep living this way. You just can’t keep having a smoke before every exam. You can’t just keep eating a chocolate every time you start feeling sorry for yourself. You can’t keep drinking beer every time you are bored with your life. These I wants start to create their own problems.
Have you ever noticed what you crave after you are anxious? Ever noticed what you do immediately after experience a disappointment for a little instant soothing? Ever reflect on what you do when you feel bad about yourself? Ever stop and make a list? You should.
This part of you is controlling you and it is mostly under the radar. You are probably doing the same things over and over and over and over. But you are not aware of it.
Our researchers now know that every time you feel anger or sadness or self-doubt or anxiety, our psyches shift gears. We leave the rational part of brain. Actually, it keeps going but it gets over-ridden by the reward-seeking part of our brain.
Suddenly, we want something that is going to make us feel better. It is impulsive. We want something that will soothe us.
So we asked people, what is it that you actually do when you are anxious? What is it that you do when you procrastinate because you don’t want to have to do something that you have to do? And people responded.
The most popular things to do to feel better, to soothe yourself? Shopping, eating comfort food, drinking alcohol, playing video games, surfing the internet, watching TV, watching movies for more than two hours, gambling and smoking. These were the answers.
Here is what is interesting. When we actually went back and started to test the effectiveness of these ways of coping with stress and anxiety, they weren’t very effective. In fact, they often made a difficult problem worse, like people who shop because they feel bad about themselves because their credit card debt is too high.
It is an impulsive response, below the radar, which is why we continue to do it even though it is self-defeating. So then we went back and asked people to reflect on effectiveness. When you feel anxious, your characteristic response to make yourself feel better is to go shop. Does it actually make you feel better? And the answer is “No”. Does eating comfort food like chocolate? “No” Does getting drunk? “No”. Does playing video games and surfing the net? “No” Does smoking a cig? “No”. Does gambling or watching movies on TV? “No and no”
So what are we doing? We are engaging in impulsive behavior. By the way, this is the root meaning of ‘demonic possession’. It is when you are controlled by a force outside of you that is making you act in ways you wouldn’t act if you could rationally dissect it. But you can’t stop doing it.
This is the way that the ‘reward-seeking’ part of our brain works, the ‘I want’ part of our brain. It overrides the rational, long-term planning part of the brain, impulsively, right now. And the biggest key to developing some control over this part of our selves is to become conscious of when you feel anxious and stressed, to be aware of your characteristic impulse responses. As long as it is below the radar, you will definitely keep doing the same things over and over and over again.
Our researchers have done extensive studies and they have found that most of our ingrained responses to stress are indeed ineffective as we told the researchers that they were. Shopping, eating, drinking, smoking, gambling, entertaining yourself with diversions, they work. But in the list of 50 things, they work the least well, for the shortest amount of time, and have the most complications that come with them.
You know what actually works best with stress? They are all a whole lot cheaper, last longer, and have no complications at all. Here is the list:
Spending time with close friends and family people that you genuinely love, spending time doing a creative hobby, going for a walk-exercising- or playing sports, getting a massage (a little money, unless you do it with your spouse and that should probably be a weekly requirement that each of you give the other a massage every week), meditating or doing yoga, and finally praying or attending worship services. And I forgot one, the one that has probably kept me from coming apart over the years, reading.
People, exercise, loving (sensual) touch, connecting with God and your body, practicing your music or your painting-creating something cool. These actually mitigate anxiety, diminish those bad feelings we have about ourselves. They actually get us back in the space where we love life and we love the world around us again.
Good news. Just being here this morning, you are moving in the right direction. Part of the answer on developing real will to take control of your life and get your dreams back in the driver seat is to become aware of how you respond to anxiety with ineffective impulse responses. And building into our lives these things that actually will bring us fulfillment and meaning and a sense of just how wonderful our world really is.
And the other thing that I am learning from the literature is to focus on small areas where you can exercise your will power. Don’t attempt the big makeover. Just pick one small area and let that be the place of focus. You’ll get stronger and as you get stronger, keep looking for ways to expand your self-control.
Apparently, way, way too many of us engage in what Professor Polivy and Professor Herman call ‘the false hope syndrome’. From their observations, we spend too much time vowing to lose weight or vowing to quit drinking. And we do this because it is elating. We get filled with hope. We fantasize about what we will be like when we look fabulous darling, how other people will just fawn over us. We will be successful, etc..
But we don’t actually have a plan in place. So we end up exerting some self-control for a protracted period of time and then we give in. Then we beat ourselves up because we are harder on ourselves than we are on each other and a surprising number of us have really quite a harsh task master internal voice that demands stern discipline that we can’t deliver.
Then, ironically, we have put ourselves in a place of anxiety, which causes the reward-seeking part of our brain to become activated, seeking impulse behavior to make us feel better about ourselves and soothe ourselves, so we have that extra chocolate. Worse, we just say ‘what the hell’ and have half a box of chocolates. Then we feel bad about ourselves again.
So we start the cycle over again and fantasize about the future person we will be. In the mean time, little self-control has actually be exercised and our will is not any stronger and we are not actualizing what we want to actualize.
But this pattern can be broken. And strengthening your will is intrinsically important. And you can start feeling more in control of your will, not so driven by “I want”. The experts suggest small changes. Don’t start with the big picture, like trying to quit smoking altogether. It doesn’t work. You set yourself up for failure.
Instead get stronger by making incremental changes. We have to be aware of when the “I want” part of our brain kicks in and mitigate its power to make us impulsive.
So, the most successful programs at getting people to quit smoking, don’t actually start with quiting smoking. They get you to pay attention to what you are doing in your life. When you want to smoke what is happening to you? Record it, write it down. “I’m feeling nervous. I’m feeling trapped. I’m bored.” Whatever it is, record it, so that you understand what triggers your impulse.
Then set a simple rule, “Every time I feel like I need a cigarette, I’m going to wait 10 minutes before I smoke”. Set your watch. Make yourself wait. This disengages that part of your brain that demands “I want”, not forever, just for 10 minutes.
And you are getting stronger. Don’t do anything else for a couple weeks. What researchers have found is that these incremental changes actually produce bigger results. Smokers that used this simple technique of ‘delayed gratification’ actually smoked quite a bit less, even though this was not the goal that they set. All they were trying to do is engage in some ‘delayed gratification’ just to do it.
After a couple weeks, they would increase the time for the delayed gratification, making it into twenty minutes. And every time they did this, they got just a little bit stronger in their will. Then they added another piece to it. During the 20 minute ‘time out for delayed gratification’ they started to imagine their long-term goals and to focus on that prayerfully.
It is a daily discipline that gives you 5 or 10 opportunities a day to make your strength of will concretely stronger and it engages your long-term planning, the rational part of your brain that holds your hopes and dreams and goals. Slowly, slowly, you start transferring away from impulses controlling you to you controlling your impulsive side. Not feeding those impulses starts to diminish their power over you and you get back the sense that you are driving your life.
Small commitments, but they are important ones too. Peter Drucker, the management guru was right. He said that “Unless commitment is made, there are only promises and hopes; but no plans.”
The key is starting small with a commitment to one thing.
I’m going to exercise for 1 hour a day, 3 days a week, for this month. It is manageable, you can stick with it, and as you do, you will feel yourself get stronger. You can feel your will flexing itself.
And why is it that Jesus invites us into this committed life? So that we can lose weight and look fabulous? Not hardly, my friends, although there is nothing wrong with looking fabulous. Jesus was pretty clear that life will throw at us some really tough challenges. And if we are lucky enough to live a long life like 80 years, I can garauntee you that you are going to endure serious tragedy, setback and loss.
I remember talking to my grandmother when she was 85 years old and she had to move from Memphis, where she had lived all of her life to be with my parents. Her husband had died and she just needed some extra help getting around. I was standing with her on the front porch of her house and we’d been talking about all the people that we had known and all of the times of our youth. And I said to her “Grandma, what is it like saying ‘goodbye’ to your home and to everything that you have known?”
She smiled back at me and said, “Darling it is a lot easier when all of your people are dead. It’s just not the same anymore.” I can’t possibly know what that is really like but for a moment, I could picture all of her friends again, drinking Martini’s on the front porch like they did in that era. And I don’t really know what it takes to go on, but she had another 15 years of living, a whole other chapter alone without her generation.
And I know what she did have. She had spiritual grit, a force of will that was slightly stronger than the disappointments and tragedies that she endured through the depression, through the war when he husband was overseas, through two bouts of cancer that knocked her down hard, through her husbands death. The woman had impressive spiritual grit.
And Jesus knows that tragedy too, is part of our living. We don’t want it to be. It just is. I hope you don’t have to endure much of it but I’m quite sure you will. I hope you are not swamped by it but I’m fairly certain you will eventually be rocked pretty damn hard.
At the end of Samuel Beckett’s play “Waiting for Godot”, the characters are flummoxed by all of the uncertainty of human existence. And one of them says to the other, “Where will we go now?” And the other one says, “On”. And so may you. On.