Thursday, May 21, 2015

Richard L. Evans on making and breaking habits

Elder Richard L. Evans (1906-1971) served as a Seventy from 1938-1953, when he was called to the Quorum of Twelve Apostles.  He died in 1971 at age 65.  He was known as "the voice of the Tabernacle Choir" from the beginning of its broadcasts in 1929 until his passing.
"Rip Van Winkle was depicted by one playwright as excusing himself every time he did what he shouldn't do, by saying, '"I won't count this time." Well, he may not count it,' said William James, 'and a kind heaven may not count it, but it is being counted nonetheless. Down among his nerve cells and fibres, the molecules are counting it, registering and scoring it up to be used against him when the next temptation comes. Nothing we ever do is in strict scientific literalness wiped out.'
"And then the celebrated William James said: 'Could the young but realize how soon they will become... walking bundles of habits, they would give more heed to their conduct.... We are spinning our own fates, good or evil.... Every smallest stroke of virtue or of vice leaves its never so little scar.... We are... imitators and copiers of our past selves.'
"But our habits, good or bad, weren't always habits. What we now do habitually we once did first—and then again—and then again. And since we become 'slaves to our own past performances,' we had better be particular about beginning anything that could become a habit.
"Obviously the reason we have bad habits is because we did the first time what shouldn't have been done at all. This may seem to offer little comfort to those who already have unwanted habits. Fortunately, however, bad habits aren't hopeless. But it takes more effort to get out of a rut than it does to get in one, and sometimes the only way to get out is to get out all at once. The best way to leave bad habits behind is simply to leave them behind, without lingering or looking back. The break has to come sometime. Sometime has to be the last time. And it isn't likely to be any easier later, because habits, like ruts, dig more deeply with time, even though at first we may think of them as something we can start or stop whenever we want to....
"The best time to break a bad habit is before the first time. The next best time is now—before the next time."
- Richard L. Evans, "I Won't Count This Time...", The Spoken Word, April 2, 1967; see Improvement Era, June 1967, p. 83
Elder Evans, quoting William James, provides interesting food for thought. We may think a single action doesn't matter much, but "down among... nerve cells and fibres, the molecules are counting" — and the impact is being registered at a level we may not comprehend. Each time we give in to a temptation, it becomes that much easier to give in next time as we slowly become "walking bundles of habits." The profound corollary is that it works just the same for virtues as vices; each good deed or act of obedience makes it that much easier to choose well next time, and the cells and molecules are impacted by every positive step just as they are by the negatives ones.

And as for changing the course once bad decisions or actions have started? Elder Evans advocates decisive and committed action:

I love the insight of this simple closing thought:

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