Swimming is my exercise of choice. However, I had a habit that was becoming a problem. I only breathed on the right side while doing the crawl stroke. In my adult life I didn't really care anymore whether I was a “fast” swimmer,
and so I didn't have any real motivation to learn how to breathe on the left. But then a few years ago, I began experiencing horrible pain in my neck. The pain became so severe that I soon had a choice – I could either learn how to breathe on the left, or stop swimming.
And so it was that I set out, in my mid-thirties, to learn this new skill. I thought it would be just a matter of adding a new element to my already well-developed swimming skills, but this did not turn out to be the case. So accustomed were my body and brain to only breathing on the right, that I had to entirely re-learn how to swim. It was extremely difficult. Previously able to jump in a pool and swim twenty laps without thinking about it, I now struggled – splashing, coughing, sputtering – to swim one length of the pool, after which I would cling to the side desperately, heaving to catch my breath. The lifeguards, who were used to seeing me swim easily with “good form,” looked on in bewilderment. It was awful. It took several years of practice – hard, disciplined practice - for me to learn how to breathe on the left, to re-learn how to swim in this new way.
This is what it’s like to break an old, deeply-ingrained habit and learn something new. It is not only true with physical habits like swimming, but also with habits of the mind and spiritual habits. That bad habit we were going to give up for Lent/Advent, or that extra prayer time/discipline we were going to take on? It gets hard, after the novelty of the idea wears off, and then we get frustrated. Breaking that mental habit of leaping to judgment every time something goes wrong, but rather trying to respond more compassionately (or at least less angrily)? It takes years of awkward, disciplined practice. How to respond to certain things with a sense of gratitude to God rather than resentment? This takes a long time and intentional effort.
Breaking old, problematic habits and learning new ways IS a part of spiritual growth and is often necessary. Any time we set out to change a habit or an attitude, it takes repetitive practice, and often feels like a struggle before it starts to feel even a little bit easy. We cough and sputter where we once glided so effortlessly. But it’s worth it. Remember through the practice – the agonizing, hard practice – that God is loving you through it. God’s grace is involved in this, too, not just your own striving efforts. God will give you exactly what you need, when you need it, to get through. God will forgive your awkward mistakes as you practice – perhaps even affectionately giggling at them. It’s not a contest. You do not have to “impress” God with your spiritual prowess. Just keep practicing, give it time, and don’t worry if you have to cling to the side of the pool, coughing and heaving, to catch your breath between laps. It’s only the beginning, and it gets better.