Apparently my commitment to no longer bite my nails has made an impression on my thumb-sucking daughter Tori. On the cusp of turning six, she has been talking for the past several days about stopping her habit. I suggested she might want to put some yucky tasting stuff on her thumb, but she declined. “No pressure,” I told her. “You’ll give it up when you’re ready, just like I did.”
Yesterday she informed me she would not be taking her pink blanket with her to Grammy’s house, because the blanket is what makes her suck her thumb. The wisdom of my children never ceases to amaze me. She understands intuitively what I stubbornly refuse to acknowledge – if you do what you’ve always done, you’ll get what you always got.
People who are addicted to pornography have to completely remove computers from their home to break the hold it has on their lives. In order to stay clean and sober, alcoholics and drug addicts must often end relationships with drinking buddies and even well-meaning, loving family members who trigger their compulsive behaviors. Thumb suckers have to leave their blankets at home. And fishermen living lives of quiet desperation must abandon their nets of mediocrity and do something radically unexpected. As an ancient Chinese proverb says, “If we do not change our direction, we are likely to end up where we are headed.”
On New Year’s Day I was filled with feelings of excitement and commitment to my 40-day fast and prayer, and my resolution to call one female friend each day. But my feelings did what feelings do – they changed. Keeping my commitment suddenly got a lot harder, and I’ve had lots of slips. I’m now in the season of “fake it ‘til you make it.”
I don’t know about you, but I detest that phrase with a passion. “Faking” seems like the height of dishonesty and an affront to personal integrity. “Faking “ seems to be pretending to be something I’m not and lying to the people around me about who I really am. More than anything, I want my “outside” to match my “insides.”
The problem is, my insides are often a royal mess. If I allowed my outside conform to every feeling of fear, anger, resentment, loneliness, self-pity, pride, lust, or jealousy that I have on the inside, I’d need to go to the Sacrament of Reconciliation on an hourly basis! If I waited for my feelings on the inside to be unselfish, loving and pure before I acted that way, I’d never sustain the kind of virtuous and fulfilling life for which I long.
In his epistle to the Corinthians, St. Paul advises those who are trying to sustain the radical change of Christian life to “act as if” and do something different than what they were accustomed. “From now on, let those having wives act as not having them, those weeping as not weeping, those rejoicing as not rejoicing, those buying as not owning, those using the world as not using it fully,” he says. In other words, fake it ‘til you make it. I practiced this with my nails by keeping them manicured and painted even before they grew out. If I had waited for them to be grown out before I took special care of them, I’d still be waiting. Acting “as if” has helped me sustain the change.
In today’s Gospel Jesus assures us that now is the time of fulfillment, to repent and believe in the good news of where we are headed, not the bad news of where we’ve been in our past as slaves to our capricious feelings and ingrained habits. For me, the “good news” is that one day, my insides will catch up to my outsides as long as I stay focused on my actions and not on my feelings. “Faking it” becomes not a lie, but an act of faith that I believe in the saving power of God to change my life.
Today’s first reading about the pagans in Nineveh says, “God saw by their actions how they turned from their evil way.” God changed the course of destruction for Nineveh not because they felt remorse, but because they changed their behavior. What we do is more important than what we feel. We don’t even have to do it perfectly. I still put my fingers in my mouth and fantasize about nibbling them. I have slips in my fasting and prayer, and I sometimes forget to make my daily phone call. But the next morning is a new day, and a new chance to be faithful by trying again. We are called “practicing” Catholics for a reason, practicing when we feel like it, and practicing when we don’t. The more we practice, the better we get, on the outside and on the inside.