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Conquering a sinful habit

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When it comes to faith, my writing style tends toward explication -- some would say pontification. I have the heart of a teacher.

But it's also a lot easier to be intellectual about faith than to examine my own heart. To be honest, I find it difficult and confusing, even after some 25 years since I learned what an examination of conscience is. Deliberate, conscious sins -- the big incidents -- are easy, but finding the little habits, the assumptions, the selfishness, that's hard. These aren't even day-to-day sins; they're minute-to-minute sins. Reading about St. Francis of Assisi, my confirmation saint, helped me become aware that they are there, but they are hard to see. To make things worse, new ones like to sneak in. I have to always keep my guard up.

What makes this really challenging, though, is the flip side: it's easy to go too far, to think of a thing (a habit, say) as being sinful when it isn't. Scrupulosity is a sly poison. And when you have a sinful habit, and you are praying and trying as hard as you can and you still keep slipping up, how much guilt do you bear?

I don't know the answers, but I have learned a thing or two (the hard way) about breaking a sinful habit. I used to struggle with my driving habits. That's a nice way to say that I used to be a serious road rager.

I yelled and cursed, I made rude gestures, I cut people off, I refused to let them pass me. I absolutely could not stand it if another car got in my way. I thought I was a better and faster driver than everyone else, and if someone passed me, it was like a challenge to my supremacy. It even put a strain on my marriage, as my husband didn't like to be in the car when I was driving (and I didn't like to let him drive because he was too slow and meek).

When I felt that anger coming on while on the road, I used to try everything I could to suppress it. I prayed, only to have a curse fly out in the middle of the prayer; I took deep breaths, only to hit the accelerator to keep from being passed; I tried to distract myself, only to have my attention jerked back to the offending car.

I would break down in tears of guilt after every serious episode, and they happened at least every other trip.

God answers our prayers in ways we don't anticipate. (After all, if we were smart enough to know what to do, we wouldn't need his help.) Mine was answered while reading the blog Waiter Rant. (I can't find the post in the archives despite all my mad skilz with Google.)

Waiter had written about driving home from work one night and getting into a conflict with another driver. He described the feeling, very familiar to me, of fury welling up as the other car whipped aggressively past him. And then he wrote that a new thought suddenly popped into his mind: "I don't have to win."

Reading that was like seeing the clouds part after forty days of rain. Was that the solution to my problem? I tried it out. The next time I got angry on the highway, I remembered Waiter and said to myself, "It's okay. I don't have to win." And the SUV zoomed past, and I didn't win, and nothing bad happened. It was true: I don't have to win!

I wasn't cured overnight, but by changing how I thought about other drivers' behavior, I changed how I reacted. Instead of trying to smother my anger, I was not getting angry at all. Instead of feeling personally attacked (yes, attacked is how I felt) when another car tried to "win" on the road, I felt content to choose to let that driver win.

I don't think I would ever have figured out by myself that I had to change my thinking, rather than my behavior. God is so willing to tell us what to do when we open our ears to listen.

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