Every human being has some natural resistance to change, and this resistance is not necessarily a bad thing. We enjoy familiar people, objects, and situations. Rather than always placing ourselves in danger or awkward situations, enjoying security and constancy can be healthy for us. Habits make our lives more efficient and preferable to having to think through every action. But what happens when our natural inclination for constancy and predictability comes in the way of conversion to Christ? Here, we’ll look at six different natural patterns that can become obstacles to conversion.
Love for the familiar
We are most comfortable with people and things we already know and have experienced. The unknown poses a risk, and we feel uneasy. Now some people thrive on the new and different, but when it’s time to relax, we all want a comfortable and cozy place to settle.
What if our “comfort zone” becomes more important than following the Spirit? We can resist change, even when there is a clear benefit to taking a new direction. Relationships become stagnant. Not only can we stop forming new friendships, but we may not be happy about changes in our existing relationships. We avoid reaching out and welcoming the stranger. We put pressure on members of an organization to conform, even when they suggest a better option. We resist innovation and new ideas.
We’re most comfortable when the world around us and the information we receive fit with our perceptions and worldview. We make decisions using our knowledge base and experience. This uniformity allows organizations to run smoothly and maintain a steady course. Rigid thinkers tend to be pragmatic and are good at managing and keeping things running.
But the rigid thinker can also listen to a homily or read a passage in scripture and just hear what they want to hear, not what they need to hear. They will disregard new ideas and even become irritated if someone pushes hard enough for them to consider a different point of view.
Others can share ideas with excellent reasoning, and yet the rigid thinker quickly dismisses them.
Need for safety and security
Looking to safeguard oneself, one’s home, and one’s family makes a lot of sense. We consider someone foolish who takes unnecessary risks. This protective instinct motivates people to step up when the parish is in crisis.
Many people today say they are open to change. Politicians rise and fall because of how voters perceive his or her ability to introduce improvements. It seems, however, they’re willing to accept change as long as it doesn’t threaten what they already have.
This need for security can lead us to keep our focus on internal concerns while ignoring the world around us. When a parish suffers losses, the natural tendency is to hunker down and protect what remains rather than looking to a riskier solution that might lead to a better future. We can stop growing and making improvements because the risk of change makes us uncomfortable.
Taking the path of least resistance
Why wouldn’t someone want to take the path of least resistance? Why subject ourselves to extra headaches? The smoother way reduces conflicts and is more efficient.
But God’s way is usually not the easy way. We don’t usually grow by taking the easiest path. Shedding attachments, changing behavior, and getting out of comfort zones is bound to take work. It’s hard to imagine how we will experience conversion or make significant changes as a parish if we stay only on the path of least resistance.
Habituation refers to two tendencies. The first is to form repetitive patterns of behavior that make life more efficient and predictable. Habits like brushing our teeth, putting on our seatbelt when we get in the car, and saying “please” and “thank you” have a great deal of benefit.
The second form of habituation is our tendency to tune out input that is repetitive and uninteresting. I’m sure this makes life less exhausting and demanding, although sometimes we end up tuning out important details as well.
As we habituate to words, rituals, activities, and even to people, we lose attention to detail, we lose interest, and we become insensitive. Consider the problems of the parishioner who tunes out the Gospel he has heard dozens of times or the married couple who begin to ignore one another. Habitual behaviors can be a problem, too. A habit of correcting someone every time they say something you think is wrong could become very irritating. Habitual sin is harder to let go. Breaking old habits to start newer, healthier ones, doesn’t come easily.
Tendency toward the mean
In statistics, the tendency toward the mean describes the phenomenon where things that can change over time start looking more like the average (i.e. the “mean”).
The same tendency happens with people. In social situations, through a phenomenon called social proof, we tend to conform to the way the group around us behaves. For example, if everyone dresses casual at work, more often than not you’ll leave your suit jacket and tie at home. Or if the group you hang out with prefers certain topics of conversation, you’ll either conform, or you’ll find a new group. The tendency towards the mean makes it easier for us to fit in and contributes to establishing a group identity.
But what if the group’s behavior is wrong? We’ve heard stories of people ignoring someone who is injured or in need of help, and no one else steps forward. What if our parish community as a whole acts contrary to the Gospel? Take the call to evangelization or welcoming the stranger. If we tend to compare ourselves to the average person around us, we might remain self-satisfied when we perceive ourselves similar or a little better than the rest, even if it’s not what God wants.
Moving Beyond Natural Resistance
Like the stealth sins of pride, selfishness, and complacency, these tendencies that keep us from holiness can easily fly under the radar. If we don’t know to look for them, we may never recognize a need for change. We run the risk of living a comfortable life, but one that is also a half life. What can we do to raise our awareness and openness to the Holy Spirit? The list of suggestions are many, but I would like to suggest the five following practices as a place to start.
Set a new, godly standard.
Take time to reflect on our lives and ask, “Do my thoughts and actions honor God? Am I living in imitation of Jesus Christ? Am I doing God’s will?” Start the process by taking 5-10 minutes a daily for self-examination or a daily Examen.
Look to the other person to verify your understanding.
When someone presents an idea we disagree with, there is one way to make sure we really do understand: to repeat back to that person what we thought we heard them say and then give them the opportunity to correct us. We so quickly jump to conclusions. Let us honor the other person by listening well and making sure we fully understood him before we pass judgment.
I don’t mean for us to place our lives in danger, but rather, for us to step out of our comfort zone. Regularly do things that make you stretch.
Change up your pattern in the morning or the evening. Go for a walk. Sit down for a conversation. Go on a retreat. Change your habit, at least for one day, where you stop living on auto-pilot.
Be the one. Be George.
A saying that started before my time was, “Let George do it.” I haven’t heard that phrase for a while, but the sentiment remains firmly fixed in our society: If you see something that needs attention, we tell ourselves it’s someone else’s responsibility. “I’m too busy. I’ve got a schedule to meet. Let George do it.”
Be George. Be the one.
Counter-Dynamics: Natural Resistance to Change is an excerpt from my upcoming book, Parish Dynamics: Parish Vitality Through Conversion. It’s the third of a six-part series on obstacles to ongoing conversion.