Did you ever decide to make a change, some big, colossal, gargantuan, enormous change, and then… forget you changed? I have this beautiful Japanese Maple tree in my backyard, and it starts out verdant and bright. Later, tiny patches of pink and light green emerge in the form of delicate seeds, the kind that falls like helicopters from the sky, the kind we used to split as children and stick on our noses. Only then do the leaves start to turn from vibrant green to deep rich red and eventually burgundy by the fall. This year, my tree went through the first few stages without a hitch, and a lovely cardinal red patch poked its way out from one branch. It was beautiful to watch. A few random leaves on the tips of the larget shoots at the top of the tree began to follow suit and gently started their metamorphosis. Looking through the kitchen window this morning, suddenly, I realized that I could no longer see the red patch. For a moment I thought the green had overtaken the spot and it was only hidden from view. Going outside to take a look, I saw that the red patch had withered and died on the branch. And while the tips of the branches continued to hold on to their transformation, the most influential part, the branch which had made the boldest statement had been overwhelmed and lost.
It got me thinking about times in my life when I had decided to make a change. I proclaimed my new direction, stepped out bravely onto the fresh path before me, but somehow ended up back where I had been before. Now, it wasn’t that I didn’t want to change, or that my will wasn’t strong. It wasn’t that I was ashamed of my decision and decided to retreat. No, my problem was like the tree’s, I was in the habit of doing things a certain way, and my habits overpowered my decisions. My tree is perfectly fine; It’s not sick or dying. It was used to being green, even if it was meant to be red.
Habits are hard to break. I’ve heard that habits obey the rule of fours. If you can resist the urge to do something you no longer want to do for four minutes, four hours, four days, four months, you have broken the habit. And by extension, if you can do something you want to do for four days in a row, four weeks, four months in a row, you have created a new habit. I suppose, like my tree, I occasionally need a reminder, “Don’t forget! You’ve changed!” I guess the power of positive thinking can also be the power of positive reminders.
Thinking about it, it makes sense to me. My mother was a smoker for many years, and nothing she or my father did could make her stop. He even tried putting tiny little explosives in her cigarettes that would make them go up in flames after a few puffs. That only made her angry. She threw away all her cigarettes. Nope – she just bought more. She became afraid of losing her legs to poor circulation; still, she didn’t stop. Mom didn’t finally quit until she decided to keep her cigarettes on top of the refrigerator as she always had, but told herself every time she got the urge that she wouldn’t have one now; she’d just have it later. This constant reminder that she didn’t need it now helped her to quit forever. My husband did something similar, he too smoked but our kids kept begging him to stop. He decided to make a change but kept right on smoking. Each time he lit up a cigarette he’d say out loud to everyone around, “I’m not a smoker.” Puff after puff, “I’m not a smoker.” Little by little, he began to take fewer breaks where he needed that cigarette. One day, after lighting up for the millionth time, he repeated his mantra, “I’m not a smoker,” as he raised the tip to his lips. Disgusted, he stopped suddenly, pulled the unsmoked cigarette away from his face, looked long and hard at it and said, “What am I doing? I’m not a smoker.” That was it. He hasn’t smoked again.
Sometimes we simply need to remind ourselves that WE have changed even if our habits haven’t. Sometimes we need to KEEP reminding ourselves until our habits change too.
Psalm 51:10 “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me.