Seek Improvement, Not Perfection

When we were just married and everything was a dream away, we wanted to be a certain kind of family, able to be used by the Lord to build up his Kingdom–large family, family Rosary every night, obedient and loving children, involved in parish ministries, disciplined and fruitful prayer lives, knowledgeable about the faith, etc… But every time we planned to climb up the mountain to make these things happen, we would slide right back down. We would plan big things and then when one person didn’t cooperate to stick with it (achieving a goal along with another person is harder, it seems to me, than when only one person is required to muster up the discipline to do it–more variables), or distractions came along, it just fell off and we didn’t get very far.

When perfection is the goal, you pretty much are doomed to fail from the beginning. Because we don’t usually get to be perfect until we have gone through a long line of transformations from more to less imperfect. Black or white, all or nothing, done or not done thinking leads to failure. Failure breeds less confidence that change is possible and thus more failure. On the other hand, if the goal is improvement, then any step in the chosen direction, no matter how small can be seen as success. And success breeds confidence that change is within our grasp, so you try harder and longer, and become successful.

Back in my days of trying to quit smoking, I remember falling into this trap. You really want to quit, and you kind of don’t too–you try going cold turkey. You don’t smoke for 2 days. Then you end up at a familiar place with a cold beer in your hand, you smell smoke all around you, and you are overcome by temptation (of course, the best thing for this person would be to avoid that place, those smells of smoke, that beer for a long time and maybe forever, if necessary). Well, you already had one, you may as well finish the whole pack. You already smoked today, so why not just finish out this week, and start over in the fresh week. This month is already shot, so we will try again next month. But the holidays are coming up, so I will just make it my New Year’s resolution in a few months… And so it goes. If the person could say, “Yep, I messed up just then, but that doesn’t mean it is all over; I will keep on with my efforts and this will get easier. Way to go, self, for going two days without a smoke. Next time we are invited to this place, we will suggest another activity,” they might find themselves non-smokers soon.

I have also learned with my weight-loss efforts that achieving a goal can best be done (for me at least) by starting with a very low and enjoyable bar to get over. I know that, most importantly, I have to monitor and choose carefully the food I eat. On top of that, exercise helps for lots of reasons, but one reason to exercise is that it allows you to eat ice cream or chips! If I go to the gym for 35 minutes of walking on a treadmill up hills, I may burn about 300 calories. On most days I can easily muster up the energy and discipline to do this because: the YMCA is affordable and has great childcare while you are there (thank God for the YMCA) so it is not a struggle to afford it or find something for my kids to do; I can go to the fitness center and workout anytime unlike a scheduled class that I could miss and make an excuse about; it is not hard for me to walk for that length of time and feels pretty good; I can watch cable news which I don’t have at home. If I had those obstacles in my way to overcome, I probably wouldn’t have developed the habit of going 3 or 4 days a week, and I wouldn’t have seen the weight loss I wanted and it would have been less pleasant so I more than likely would have lost the drive to continue. The low bar allowed me to continue, and continuing is what allowed me to arrive at my goal, although slower than what would be desirable for some. The point is that I achieved and maintained the weight loss by doing what was not too hard and not too unpleasant for the long haul. I felt that success was in my grasp and I continued with my efforts. Experiencing success in one area of your life also helps you feel like you can be successful in other areas. If I can quit smoking and lose this baby weight, then maybe I can also become the kind of disciplined Christian I want to be too…

So after innumerable discussions of the problems and plans to resolve them, failures to carry out the plans, etc…,we have decided to just do the bare bones, baseline, nothing-to-be-proud of things we all should be doing and do them consistently for so long that it is no longer a struggle and it is just who we are as a family. We decided to:

1. Go to Mass at least weekly, no matter if we are in the middle of an argument or anything else. If someone
isn’t sick, we are going. So far, so good on this one.

2. Go to Confession once a month–my husband is big on this one, and it is good to do regularly, so we planned
to go the 2nd Saturday of each month. We haven’t done this yet, as the first 2nd Saturday is yet to
arrive. But I pray we will.

3. We have our son read from a children’s Bible at dinner and we talk about it. This one is going alright,
though I sometimes forget to have him do it.

4. We pray a decade of the Rosary after dinner and then a personal prayer is shared out loud from each person.We have forgotten a few times and gotten distracted by busyness, but usually our daughter is the one who reminds us and we fight the temptation to find an excuse to avoid it (why do we avoid the most important thing we could do?)

These are all highly do-able and mostly pleasant activities for us–once we do them. Low bar. I believe that God is in our corner and will give us the grace we need to be the people he wants us to be. There is much room for improvement, but thanks be to God, we are improving, and we are already seeing some fruit in our lives as a result of this renewed commitment to spiritual growth.

It is a shift in mindset from perfect and grand to do-able, gradual, but certain improvement that has brought success, in my experience. It is discouraging if you set out to live a monastic life–liturgy of the hours, full Rosary with perfect obedient kids, time to study and personal prayer and quiet, plus service on top of the life of a working person with young children. Bar too high, sacrifice too much, joy too little, failure is all but certain. Set the bar lower and make it pleasurable as possible, emphasize growth, and get right back up everytime you fall off the wagon. Perhaps this is God’s way of protecting us from pride and thinking that we have done these things on our own. We cannot do this on our own, but with God all things are possible!

What strategies have you found for growing spiritual discipline in your life?

Your $0.02