C.S. Lewis and Real Progress

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C.S. Lewis once wrote: “We all want progress. But progress means getting nearer to the place where you want to be. And if you have taken a wrong turning then to go forward does not get you any nearer. If you are on the wrong road progress means doing an about-turn and walking back to the right road and in that case the man who turns back soonest is the most progressive man. There is nothing progressive about being pig-headed and refusing to admit a mistake…. Going back is the quickest way on.”

Indeed, the Bible often talks about not primarily forging ahead but about “return” as the way to grasp real progress. We have to get back to God. “Come, let us return to the Lord” (Hosea 6:1). “‘Return to me,’ declares the Lord Almighty, ‘and I will return to you,’ says the Lord Almighty” (Zechariah 1:3). It’s for this reason that during Lent we talk of “turning around” or repentance.

In a sense, repentance may indeed be the most progressive act we do.

Since tomorrow is Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent, I’ve been wondering about what science and Scripture tell us about what it means to turn around and make real progress. If I were to summarize (and why not?), what I’ve learned from Scripture goes like this: Change is hard, and we need community to do it, but change is possible. It probably shouldn’t surprise me that science leads us to a similar conclusion. (It shouldn’t be a surprise because, of course, God is the Great Scientist who wrote the book of nature which includes us and our psychology.)

  • One key area for difficult changes is recovery from addiction. The psychological model Smart Recovery outlines five stages of change.
  • I’ve also written on my blog on how to “keep the change” in light of my conversion to Christ.
  • Ed wrote about habits just a few weeks ago, and on another blog, I also addressed the topic of change and spiritual life.
  • I’m co-teaching a course this Lent on neuroscience and Christian formation (i.e., change) with psychologist Leonard Matheson using his insightful and approachable book Your Faithful Brain.

The Rider and the Elephant

It seems to me that science and Scripture tell us at least three things to consider and practice.

First of all, science reminds us that not everything that we think is good for us, actually is. We don’t always desire what’s best for us and that makes change is hard. Addiction is one key area where our brain chemistry has changed, and it’s hard to change back.

More broadly, we may be operating under the misconception that, if we simply decide to do something new, it will happen. Instead, we are often chained by our emotions, and it makes it hard to effect change.

Here I think of psychologist Jonathan Haidt’s image of the “rider and the elephant.” As Haidt writes, “The first rule of moral psychology, ‘Intuitions come first, strategic reasoning second.’” Our intuitions (and emotions) are the elephant, according to Haidt, and our thinking is the rider. We think we’re going to do what’s right, but we don’t always get there. And that’s why we need to turn around and repent. To this, I’d like to add two items as we seek to make change.

Core Habits

Second, I don’t think that generally we change instantaneously (though that can happen in conversion). Instead, as I wrote elsewhere a few years ago: Most of our lives have been marked by slow, incremental change, by the “habits of the heart.” That last phrase finds its way into the profound 19th century study of our culture by philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville in the book, Democracy in America.

Tocqueville wrote in French, and his exact phrase was habitudes du cœurCœur sounds a lot like core, and the connection reveals a great deal. Writer and speaker Parker Palmer notes that heart shares an Indo-European root with Latin cor or cord, which echo core and coeur. And, to round this out, habit derives from habitus, which means things we do continually. Added up, this process is about forming habitual practices at our coeur. And neuroscience would add that this often occurs deep in our brain’s “core,” in the basal gaglia.

What else does this mean? It leads to what I’ve learned from New York Times reporter Charles Duhigg, who wrote The Power of Habit (including this video), as well other commentators on changing habits. We are formed deeply by a cue, a reward, and a routine (aka habit)—Duhigg even has a nice chart for this. We might think, “I need to relax at 5 p.m. every day (cue), and I’ll grab a drink (reward).” This creates a pattern (routine). Duhigg reminds us that, if drinking at “cocktail hour” every night is bad for you, psychological research says to go after the reward in order to change the habit. Go for a walk instead of heading to the dive bar near the office. Soon, we’ll have new habits at our core.

The Habit of Community

Third and briefly noted, though we need to commit to change individually, as Drew pointed out, we certainly need to create good habits in community. I just read about an 85-year Harvard study, which reminds us that relationships are life and a good life at that. It tells us how few of us have someone to confide in, but how much we need it, especially at times when we need to turn our lives around. A CNBC article describing the study closes with an almost sermonic admonition: “Don’t be afraid to reach out to the people in your life. Whether it’s a thoughtful question or a moment of devoted attention, it’s never too late to deepen the connections that matter to you.”

And so, when we take the road back to what’s best for us and to God, let’s be on that road together as the church—those who are on the way with Christ. C.S. Lewis even used this bold image to make a similar point, “The Church exists for nothing else than to draw men into Christ, to make them little Christs.”

That’s bold indeed. Maybe it’s what we need as we seek real progress this Lent.

A black and white headshot of Greg's face with the words Greg Cootsona, Contributing Editor

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