How Then Shall I Live? (Part 1)

This article begins to bring together all of the ideas of previous articles.  We discussed how that we are embodied creatures.  This means that most often our minds do not run the show.  It is our non-cognitive affective part that guides our lives.  It is not perspective but passion, not conviction but concern, not our belief but our bodies that determine who we are.  We are not what we believe.  We are what we love.

We learned that we are teleological beings.  All of our loves are aimed at something.  We cannot merely love.  We always love something.  That something is a particular vision of The Good Life.  It is the social vision that we all work towards.  It is our own little kingdom.  We are desiring beings and we desire a kingdom.

Then we took a look at what the kingdom of God looks like by examining Revelation 21/22 (our “end”).  We also discussed what sort of person is aimed at that vision of the kingdom by defining what it means to be made in the image of God (our “beginning”).  Only a person who imitates God’s creative goodness, love, and justice is “aimed” at the New Jerusalem.  This leaves us with the question that will occupy this and upcoming articles: “How then shall I live?”  In other words, “How do I become that person?”

Aristotle offers insight in this regard.  First, he recognizes that education is not just about the right beliefs but about pleasures and pains, likes and dislikes.  In essence, he suggests that education is a bodily education of our loves.

“Thus ethical virtue is concerned with pleasures and pains; for we do what is bad for the sake of pleasure, and we abstain from doing what is noble because of pain.  In view of this, we should be brought up from our early youth in such a way as to enjoy and be pained by the things we should, as Plato says, for this is the right education.”1

Further, he views virtue from the beginning and from the end (as we did in previous articles).

“It should be noted that every virtue (a) makes that of which it is the virtue be well disposed and (b) makes it perform its function well; e.g., the virtue of an eye both makes the eye a good eye [its “beginning”] and makes it perform its function well [its “end”], for it is by virtue of the eye that we see well.  Similarly, the virtue of a horse makes (a) the horse a good horse [its “beginning”] and also (b) good at running and carrying its rider and facing the enemy [its “end].  So if such is the case in every instance, the virtue of a man, too, would be the habit from which he becomes good and performs his function well.”2

If we want to know how to be good (our “beginning”) and how to live into the vision of God’s kingdom (our “end) then we find ourselves firmly within the realm of habits.  For to be good and to live towards the right vision is to be virtuous, and virtue is a habit.  The following articles, therefore, will examine habits: #1 How we form habits. #2 How habits form us.  #3 and #4 How we may form bad habits without knowing.  #5 How we can be sure to develop habits which direct our love towards the kingdom of God.

Science has helped us to learn more about habits, how they are formed, and the “power” that they have to move our lives.  In recognition of this Charles Duhigg titled his New York Times Best Seller The Power of Habit.3 Duhigg describes what he calls “the habit loop” which consists of a cue, a routine, and a reward. To establish this he cites one study performed by MIT researchers in the 1990s.4 A rat was placed inside of a T-shaped maze. The rat was placed in the tunnel of the ‘T’ behind a partition. When a “click” sounded (the cue) the partition was raised. The rat then traveled slowly and cautiously down the tunnel at the end of which he was forced to turn either to the left where chocolate waited, or to the right which was a dead-end. When he successfully navigated the maze (the routine) he found the chocolate (the reward).  By sensors inserted into the rats’ brains the scientists were able to observe the brain activity of the rats as they repeatedly performed this exercise.  The results are important for our understanding of habits.  The first time each rat ran the maze the brain was wide awake.  The brain remained highly active in order to take in all of the new details.  Its high-alert status helped it to look out for potential dangers.  When it found the chocolate there was another spike in brain activity.  As the rat repeated the process he ran the maze faster and faster.  He knew the routine.  Run the tunnel, turn left, eat chocolate.  It no longer meandered or sniffed walls and corners.  It went straight for the goal with expert efficiency.  The amazing thing is what happened to his brain activity.  After the exercise had become a habit his brain activity bottomed out.  While waiting behind the petition his brain was still very active.  But the moment the cue sounded his body went into auto-pilot.  His brain knew the pattern so that it no longer had to exert itself.  Its decision making centers went quiet, even the memory went quiet!  The maze was not “remembered”, it was merely run.  The rat quite literally ran the maze without thinking.  Once he arrived at the chocolate the routine was completed and the habit-loop was closed.  His brain woke up again.

Each part of the habit-loop is important.  The cue is important because it indicates to our brain which pattern is appropriate for the scenario.  If the rat performed the same routine in response to a cat’s “meow” as it did to the “click” of the raised partition then the rat’s brain would shut down right at the time when it needed to be most alert and it would run right into the clutches of the cat.  The routine is important because thinking often impedes out actions.  Skills are performed most fluently when we do not have to think about them (e.g. typing, speaking a language, driving).  Also, when the brain is not focused on the performance of the routine it can think about other things.  This is what allows us to talk while we drive, make to-do lists while we get ready in the morning, and work through marital disputes while we take a mid-afternoon run.  Finally, the reward is important because it is what signals to the brain that the cue and routine are worth remembering.

1. As we have repeatedly emphasized, we are not primarily thinking-things or even believing-things.  We are desiring-things or loving-things.  What drives us is a bodily wanting not a cognitive believing.  Most of what we do is out of habit and a habit by definition is done without thinking.  This goes for our good habits as well as our bad habits.  This is why when we are insulted (that’s our cue) we often shift to a pattern of retaliation (routine) in order to gain revenge or equilibrium or some sense of “justice” (reward).  And after it’s all over, when we are apologizing for our insults and anger we say, “I’m sorry.  I wasn’t thinking.  I don’t know what got into me.”  It’s also the reason people like myself sometimes say things that make no sense.  On a number of occasions when the waitress has brought my food at a restaurant and said, “Enjoy your meal” I responded by saying, “You too.”  Even though the waitress has no meal to enjoy I have trained myself to respond to well-wishing (cue) with a benediction of my own (routine) in order to be polite (reward).  These good habits of well-wishing and good manners are just as reflexive and automatic as bad habits of anger and retaliation.

2. Because habits are performed without thinking then the answer to bad habits is not to change our thinking.  Chances are we already think rightly about bad habits.  It is our right thinking that labels bad habits as bad.  The problem is not in our thinking/belief.  The problem is in our bodies’ learned responses.  Therefore, in order to become the people we are intended to be we need a sort of education that targets the body instead of the mind.  This will be addressed in future articles.

For now the most important thing is that we realize how large a part the body plays in who we are as human beings.  The education of the body is the education of our habits.  This is why we are encouraged to give our bodies over to God.  “Present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God” (Rom. 12:1).  This is what it means to be simply human.  So join me in giving our bodies over to God.  Because you were born to.


1. Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, trans. H.G. Apostle (Grinnell, IO: Peripatetic Press, 1984), B.1104b.10.
2. Ibid, B.1106a.15-25, brackets mine
3. Charles Duhigg, The Power of Habit, Random House Trade Paperback Edition (New York: Random House, 2014).
4. Ibid, 12-21.