Do the right thing.

No, this is not about the Spike Lee movie of the same name, it’s about the GREAT CONUNDRUM. Let’s not confuse that with the “great commission” either, even though obeying Jesus’ command to “go and make disciples of all nations” would eliminate most of the conundrums of life. The GREAT CONUNDRUM I am referring to is, “how do I know what is the right thing to do?”

This question causes untold agony, keeps legions of therapists employed, sells countless books, popularizes no end of made-for-TV gurus, leads to much prayer and re-prayer (when the first answer that comes isn’t the one we wanted), and keeps a whole therapeutic culture afloat. Let me simplify this. When you are confronted with life’s harder choices, the right action is almost always the one you least want to take.

That answer is consistent with my view of human nature. While human beings are capable of mercy, forgiveness, heroism and self-sacrifice, such actions are NOT the result of doing what comes naturally. What is natural, what feels good, is to take the (apparently) easy way out (though almost always that “easy way” yields the worst result), cut corners, put off whatever is uncomfortable, claim our rights, shirk or transfer our responsibilities, and finally blame someone else when it all goes wrong, which tends to be the result of doing what comes naturally. Of course, I include myself in the foregoing analysis. Do you?

A life pattern of doing what is comfortable–“the path of least resistance”–will inexorably lead to poverty and frustration, broken relationships, and then excuse-making and blaming (the “system”, parents, whomever and whatever is the explanation du jour for why life didn’t turn out). Combine that pattern with the drugs of wishful thinking and self-pity, and you have a death spiral. There is a way out.

It’s never too early to begin developing the habit of doing the hard things. The key word is habit! I’ve heard it said that elephants can be restrained by a chain around their ankle, a chain that is anchored to a stake in the ground, a stake that can be pulled up with virtually no effort by an adult elephant. Because said elephant was trained as a baby with a chain and a stake that was too strong for them, which caused great pain when they struggled against, they eventually learned to stop struggling and stand passively. Habit is a cable, too strong to break…if you’re an animal and cannot recognize that your behavior is a habit. As a human being, you can replace bad habits with good ones…or not.

The “therapeutic culture” we live in seems to encourage blaming your circumstances on something other than your habits, as if you can’t help yourself. Many years ago I read something by Zig Ziglar that greatly encouraged me to start new habits. At the time he wrote it, he was morbidly obese and could barely walk from one end of his block to the other. One day he got SO disgusted with himself, that he began an exercise program. He started walking, and the first week his goal was just once around the block. When he accomplished that, he slightly increased his pace and distance, until he was walking a mile or so. Then it was fast walking the mile, then jogging it. After months of slightly increasing speed and distance, running became a habit. How do you know when an activity has become a habit? Doing it feels more “natural” and comfortable than not doing it.

This lesson is for everyone. Human beings DO what feels comfortable and natural, so if what you are doing is the wrong thing, slowly and gradually do something better until it feels easier to do it than not to. BUT, in order to undertake such discipline, you must, like Zig, become disgusted with the results of not being disciplined. That will be $100 please.