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On Cultivating Habits to Live Your Life Well

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There is a great danger lurking about – this generalized disdain for tradition, habit and ritual.

This is because it is increasingly understood, in various fields of study, that cultivating the proper habits and rituals yields a disproportionately significant flourishing effect in our lives.

Such studies fascinate me, primarily because they resonate with an approach to ethics and theology I have found fruitful for a long time now – namely, various “virtue traditions” that have found their home among the likes of Aquinas, Augustine and Aristotle.

These frameworks typically employ three primary constructs:

First is the notion of an untutored, untrained self.

Second is the question of the end of life – end in the sense of purpose or goal. What does a good life look like?

And third is the notion of virtues – those habits or dispositions that best constitute a good life.

Note that the virtue traditions do not assume that we can simplistically “follow our hearts” because our hearts may, in fact, long for destructive ends.

Desires are (often? always?) good and beautiful. But the important question is whether they are rightly ordered toward life-giving ends.

Take for example my love of certain confections. “Oh Lord, we give thanks (as one example) for dark chocolate-covered almonds with turbinado sea salt from Trader Joe’s.” A good source of protein! And dark chocolate is good for, well, something.

These things are truly good, and good not merely in the sense of pleasure to my palate, but a good source of other good things, too.

But, I confess that a disordered, inordinate love of dark chocolate-covered almonds with turbinado sea salt from Trader Joe’s often afflicts me. “Dad, where did all those dark chocolate almonds go? There was a whole carton in here this morning.”

So, our untutored, untrained desires lead to poor ends.

Sex, friendship, food, security and much more besides; all these things are indeed good.

But it requires a good deal of training to do these things well, to enjoy them well. One will grow in proper enjoyment of these goods, or one will be mastered by them.

This whole notion then always begins with the question of the end. That is, what does a good life look like?

In other words, I cannot necessarily say that the act of glutting myself with dark chocolate-covered almonds with turbinado sea salt from Trader Joe’s is a bad thing, unless I have some sort of depiction of life that would allow me to judge otherwise.

If one’s tradition is the Great Western Individualist tradition in which simplistically “following one’s heart” is the end-all-and-be-all, then it may be that the inordinate pursuit of dark chocolate-covered almonds with turbinado sea salt from Trader Joe’s may not be all that bad.

Though even here, one can make the case that one can best enjoy such indulgences if one does it with temperance.

The glutton and the lecher are auspiciously unhappy, unpleased and unpleasured people, quite unable truly to enjoy either chocolate or sex.

But there are a great number of traditions that see gluttony as problematic – and for a host of reasons.

This could be as practical as the fact that my body feels badly afterward, and my energy plummets after the sugar crash comes.

Or the fact that those who exhibit no temperance in their enjoyment of pleasures soon find themselves unable to enjoy those things that once brought them pleasure.

It could be as theological as the fact that such indulgence exhibits a sort of idolizing of food that is both symptom and symbol of a deeper bondage.

The ongoing conversation of what a good life looks like allows us to be in conversation also about the question of means and constitutive practices.

In other words, we ask what habits, skills or dispositions help us attain or embody that sort of good life.

As noted already, these habits and skills and dispositions are called “virtues.” On the contrary, habits or skills or dispositions that lead to all manner of bitter fruit in our lives – personally or socially – are called “vices.”

This is a much more fruitful way of teaching ethics than the surprisingly common yet exasperating method of presenting students with endless dilemmas that forces the conversation participants to choose between mutually exclusive principles, such as kill one to save the many, or never kill regardless of the consequences.

Then, once that principle is selected, we are thought to have gotten clued into how we shall do our “ethics.” The dilemma forces the selection of a principle, which becomes the basis for our “ethics.”

Meanwhile, the much more interesting questions – What is a life for? What is economics for? What is friendship for? – and the like, never get raised.

No doubt, dilemmas certainly arise in life. But Aristotle believed that one who was sufficiently schooled in the virtues would have the practical wisdom to assess all the relevant circumstances and make a wise decision amid the dilemma.

One could not necessarily define ahead of time the right answer. Instead, one would be better off cultivating the habits of a good life. When dilemmas arise, one will then be equipped to deal with them.

This approach asks us to stay focused on the important questions about the overarching direction of one’s life, the overall purpose of life.

And this approach asks also about the direction of human communities, and what makes for a good and shared common life.

Lee C. Camp is professor of theology and ethics at Lipscomb University in Nashville, Tennessee, and the host of Nashville’s “Tokens Show.” A longer version of this article first appeared on the Tokens Show blog and is used with permission. You may follow Lee on Facebook and Instagram at @LeeCCamp and follow Tokens Show on Twitter, Facebook and YouTube at @TokensShow.