An old friend of mine is an addiction therapist in Boston. He came by his line of work honestly, as an alcoholic. The addiction ran roughshod through his marriage, family, and career until finally his life collapsed. But he used his self-destruction to get sober, obtained a professional counseling credential, and went to work helping other alcoholics and addicts toward sobriety.
Today he is a sort of evangelist for recovery and often says, thumping his Big Blue A.A. Book with wild eyes, hair that looks like a bird’s nest, and trembling with ticks leftover from his days drinking: “Nobody’s gonna change ‘cause they feel like it. That’s a smokescreen. A man’s gotta change his thinking.”
He likens this change to computer programming and he has an illustrated drawing of it (multiple copies actually, as he carries them around in a tattered briefcase, distributing them like Scripture tracts). He was convinced that if a person wanted his behavior to be correct, then the thoughts had to be correct. His drawing is a variation of the “G.I.G.O. Model:” Garbage In, Garbage Out. Bad thinking equals bad living.
We in the faith community are extremely skilled at assessing what people are doing wrong. After all, we want people to live whole, healthy lives and that’s a good thing. But we can’t begin with someone’s behavior (Have you ever told a drunk to just “quit drinking?” How did it work?). We must begin internally.
“As a person thinks in his heart,” the Proverbs say, “so is that person,” because what one thinks affects the way one feels, and how one feels leads directly to one’s healthy or unhealthy behaviors.
Consider where we are in the calendar: Are you going to make a “New Year’s Resolution?” Here are the five most common ones: 1) Lose weight. 2) Quit smoking. 3) Eat healthier. 4) Get out of debt. 5) Spend more time with family. Those five are also the five most common resolutions to be broken.
Why the failure? Because most of the time we mistakenly focus on modifying our behavior rather than changing the deep motivations that lead to our actions. Our annual resolutions rarely last to Valentine’s Day because we don’t change the poor thinking that leads to poor outcomes.
Training the mind and heart to be different, that is to “fix our thoughts on what is true, honorable, right, pure, lovely, and admirable” or to “take captive our rebellious thoughts” is more of a discipline than walking the treadmill every morning or staying on a diet. It takes vigilance, but it leads to transformation.
How long will this take? About two months, according to experts like my Bostonian friend. If you are especially malleable, your thinking pattern might change in a few weeks. If you are more stubborn, maybe six months. The point is, changing your way of thinking doesn’t happen overnight – but it doesn’t take forever either. Learn to change your mind, then you can change anything.