Do What Comes Naturally…But Work at it

Gratitude makes all the other virtues easier. Moreover, by being grateful, we decrease the burden that difficult circumstances might otherwise place on our lives.

Over the years I’ve written about struggle, effort, will-power and the virtue of working hard (see here). I’ve also been writing articles about gratitude (see here). In this post I want to connect these two themes and explore the role that struggle and effort can play in developing a life of gratitude.

In talking about the role struggle can play in developing gratitude, I feel I’m going against the grain of so much popular thinking. In my experience at least, one of the myths that is deeply ingrained in our culture is that the more effort something requires, the less genuine or authentic is the result.

One of the areas we see this manifested is in the arts. Much of the contemporary painting I’ve seen strives to convey a sense of raw immediacy over and against art that includes tokens of refined skill that takes years of difficult effort to develop (although in reality, much effort does go into the former). Or, in much of our culture’s popular music, vocalists are rarely required to sing intervals that stretch more than a major fifth, and many performers strive to make their singing sound effortless. Of course, there are notable exceptions to this, but in general the fine voice training required to execute the difficult intervals in Schubert’s lieder or Verdi’s arias feels less authentic and personal to many young people today. Similarly, when I’ve had conversations with teenagers about the music they either like or dislike, the operating assumption is often that our natural tastes in music are fixed, while the idea of growing towards more refined musical tastes seems like an anachronism for many. (I’ve explored this in more depth in my articles on music HERE and HERE.)

Let it Go!

Or consider how in the realm of ethics, our society increasingly praises lifestyle choices that require minimum effort. Under the rubric of “being true to yourself”, people are discouraged from working towards behaviors that go against the grain of what comes naturally, as if virtues that arise after a process of struggle are somehow contrived and artificial. Our sexual tastes, like our musical tastes, are often talked about as if they are fixed and cannot be modified through training and effort. According to this way of thinking, the best we can do is be like Elsa in the Disney film Frozen: stop trying to be the good girl everyone expects you to be, since the only path to true redemption lies in learning to “let it go” and be yourself—to realize the authentic person you are inside.

In these and other areas of contemporary life, realizing your authentic self is often correlated to following the path of least resistance. The implication is that spending years to develop habits and dispositions that do not come naturally is somehow repressive, hypocritical, less authentic, less “true to yourself” and less genuine than following your natural impulses.

With such notions running so deep in our culture, it isn’t surprising that many people unconsciously assume that gratefulness is more genuine when it exists as a raw emotion that simply comes upon us. According to this narrative, an attitude of gratitude is something that some people simply have and other people do not.

In reality, the habits, attitudes and impulses that are natural to us can be trained and altered. This is clear both from Biblical wisdom as well as from the emerging science of neuroplasticity. Through difficult effort and habituation we can actually rewire the neuro-circuitry of our brains so that virtuous patterns of thinking and acting—patterns that once felt artificial and contrived—start to become second-nature to us. Anyone who has learned a foreign language or a musical instrument has experienced this process at work. It’s time to begin thinking of gratitude in a similar way—as a skill that only becomes natural to us after much practice.

Don’t take my word for it – brain scientists are now talking about how with enough practice a person can rewire their brains to exist in a constant state of gratitude. (See my post ‘Gratitude Changes the Brain.’)

There is nothing wrong with saying “Do what comes naturally” as long as we understand that each of us has the power to control what eventually comes to feel naturally to us. The theologian Tom Wright talked about this principle in with Trevin Wax interviewed him about his book After You Believe: Why Christian Character Matters (in the UK the book is titled Virtue Reborn). Wright explained how there’s something to be said for doing “what comes naturally”, but only when we appreciate that what comes naturally to each person is the result of thousands of small choices over many years:

Tom Wright

“we modern westerners – and even more postmodern westerners – are trained by the media and public discourse to think that ‘letting it all out’ and ‘doing what comes naturally’ are the criteria for how to behave. There is a sense in which they are – but only when the character has been trained so that ‘what comes naturally’ is the result of that habit-forming training….

“The illustration I sometimes use is that when you learn to drive a car, the idea is that you will quickly come to do most of the things ‘automatically’, changing gear, using the brakes, etc., and that you will develop the ‘virtues’ of a good driver, looking out for other road users, not allowing yourself to be distracted, etc.; but that the highways agencies construct crash barriers and so on so that even if you don’t drive appropriately damage is limited; and also those ‘rumble strips’, as we call them in the UK, which make a loud noise on the tire if you even drift to the edge of the roadway.

“’Rules’ and ‘the Moral Law’ are like those crash barriers and rumble strips. Ideally you won’t need them because you will have learned the character-strengths and will drive down the moral highway appropriately. But the rules are there so that when you start to drift, you are at once alerted and can take appropriate action – particularly figuring out what strengths need more work to stop it happening again….

“I come back to the point: for many in the West, all that matters is ‘doing what comes naturally’. That is an attempt to acquire instantly, without thought or effort, what Christian virtue offers as the fruit of the thought-out, Spirit-led, moral effort of putting to death one kind of behavior and painstakingly learning a different one. When the Spirit is at work, we become more human, not less – which means we have to think more, not less, have to make more moral effort, not less – and there has been a collusion between certain types of Christian teaching and certain types of post-Enlightenment moral teaching as a result of which many Christians are simply unaware of this challenge.” (For more of Wright’s teaching on virtue and Christian character, see this excellent video.)

Science supports this approach to virtue. Lab research shows that human beings have a limited amount of will-power in any given situation (see Roy Baumeister’s blog post ‘The Habits of Virtue’). That is why, if you try to run the Christian life on will-power alone, sooner or later you’ll run into trouble when confronting a big temptation. It is good for each of us to work on gradually increasing our will-power, which we can do through practicing ascetic disciplines; however, the surest defense against temptation lies not in will-power but in habituation. The thousands of tiny choices we face every day are opportunities to strengthen the habits of virtue, to make right behavior natural for us. It’s in all these small choices—the things that don’t seem very important to us at the time—that virtue becomes habituated and we gradually develop the inner resources to remain faithful in the face of more challenging circumstances and temptations. The decisions to serve others, to recall our minds back to prayer when we begin thinking about ourselves, to be patient with those who annoy us, to practice impulse control when we begin mindlessly surfing online, to practice attentiveness towards those we love, to constantly shift loss-frames to gain-frames, to practice mindfulness to control our brains—these and hundreds of other choices we face every day are opportunities to define the types of behaviors that become habituated in us, so that when we find ourselves in an extremely challenging situation, we won’t have to rely on will-power alone, but can act automatically out of habit.

Does that make sense?

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Of course, it isn’t a strict either-or. The reality is that sometimes our virtuous habits are weakly developed and we need to simply muster up will-power. But ideally, will-power and habituation should have a mutually reciprocal relationship. Tom Wright illustrated this by talking about the virtue of courage in a soldier. A solider who relies on will-power alone to see him through a challenging battle situation will be far less effective than a soldier who has developed courage through thousands of small decisions over the course of many years:

“I remember Rowan Williams describing the difference between a soldier who has a stiff drink and charges off into battle waving a sword and shouting a battle-cry, and the soldier who calmly makes 1000 small decisions to place someone else’s safety ahead of his or her own and then, on the 1001st time, when it really is a life-or-death situation, ‘instinctively’ making the right decision. That, rather than the first, is the virtue of ‘courage’.”

As with courage, so with gratitude. I wrote earlier about how it’s possible to be grateful in the midst of severe suffering, but the way to get to that point (the point of remaining grateful when something really bad happens) is to practice gratitude for the mild inconveniences that disturb us every day. If you set out to preserve a grateful disposition in the midst of small annoyances, know that it will be hard work at first, and that it will feel artificial and contrived. But gradually the grateful state of mind will become the default state of mind. (Again, I recommend this video about what happens in the brain when a person chooses gratitude.)

In his book Search Inside Yourself, Google engineer Chade-Meng Tan described the stages a person has to pass through before a skill or state of mind becomes natural. Describing processes that have been measured and documented elsewhere by neuroscientists, Meng told how a person practicing a new state of mind first passes through a stage he calls “initial access” where they make immediate but small progress towards the new skill or state of mind. The person will quickly reach a plateau where there seems to be no forward progress. However, during the plateau-stage, the brain is actually very busy consolidating the new neuro networks. If the person continues to practice the new skill or state of mind during the plateau stage, eventually they reach a point where they shoot forward to a new watermark before the brain again plateaus to consolidate the new growth. This process continues as the person keeps growing in the new skill or state of mind. The problem is that many people give up in one of the plateau stages, concluding they are just no good at the skill or state of mind. Meng observes,

“I think the lesson to be learned is to avoid feeling discouraged when your [growth] does not seem to be progressing. If you understand the process, you may understand that when change does come, it will come suddenly, and every moment of effort brings you a little closer to that point. The classical analogy is ice breaking up on a frozen lake. To a casual observer, the breakup seems like a sudden phenomenon, but it is actually due to a long period of gradual melting of the underlying ice structure.” (To read more of Meng’s observations about this, see my blog post ‘Stages in Habituation’)

Developing a grateful state of mind is like this. It takes hard work just like any other skill, but if we press on through the plateau-stages (the times when we seem to not be making any progress), eventually the practice of gratefulness will become natural to us.

Gratitude is worth the effort since, once mastered, it is the one virtue that makes all the other virtues easier. It is easily demonstrated that gratitude makes everything else in life become easier. Just look at the face, or general demeanor, of someone who grumbles a lot, and then compare this to the face of someone who is continually grateful. Who appears to find life the most difficult? Which of the two gives the impression that life is laborious? When we lack an attitude of gratefulness, not only does it make life difficult for everyone around us, but we increase the burden in our own life as well. Conversely, by being grateful, we can decrease the burden that difficult circumstances might otherwise place on our lives.

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