Chaplain's thought for the week
Revd Tom on getting dressed for living
There’s an apocryphal story told about the golfing legend Gary Player. When a critic described him as a lucky, he responded: “Yes, and the harder I practise the luckier I get.”
Last week I reflect on the way in which our brain works: whenever we perform any action, the neurons in our brain are communicating through hundreds of millions of synapses, and when we repeat the same action or thought, that web of connections is activated again and becomes strengthened. The stronger the actions, the better we become; the harder we practise, the luckier we get.
That’s true of golf, as it is of learning a language, or an instrument, or solving maths problems. However, Matthew Syed reminds us that not all practice is equal: “The practice that really works, that builds those strong and lasting neural connections is practice that challenges you. The Hard Stuff. The stuff that makes your eyes water, muscles ache and your brain hurt.”
I wonder if this is true not only for golf or table tennis, not only for learning French or becoming better at understanding Physics, not only for mastering the piano or writing poetry, but more broadly for living – for living the good life.
What if each time we talk about someone behind their back, or cheat, or lie, or fly off the handle, we strengthen the neural connections, meaning this sort of behaviour comes more naturally in the future? On the other hand, what if each time we help a friend in need, admit the truth when it’s difficult, bear with someone who’s a bit irritating, check our anger before venting we strengthen those neural connections, meaning that sort of behaviour comes more naturally in the future?
I want to suggest that practising virtuous behaviour – even when we don’t feel like it – means that it will begin to become more natural for us. Thousands of years before age of neuroscience, the great philosopher Aristotle recognised this, saying “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence then, is not an act, but a habit.”
This is also the teaching of St. Paul in the Bible. In his letter to the Colossians, he writes: “Clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience... Above all, clothe yourselves with love.”
Each morning we get up and we have to put on clothes appropriate to the day ahead, and how we dress depends upon what we’re doing. Clothing ourselves is something we have to actively decide to do: we choose what clothes to put on. In the same way, we need to choose which virtues to put on, even when we don’t feel like it and they don’t come naturally at first. St. Paul recognises that those virtues don’t come naturally… but the more we do them – the more we practise – the more we will strengthen the neural connections.