Character, Disposition and the Formation of Habits

Reading through Charlotte Mason’s second volume, Parents and Children, I was jolted by some ideas that weren’t new to me, but came as a bit of an epiphany this time around.
Even of you are only barely familiar with Charlotte Mason (CM) and her educational ideas, you probably know that habit formation is a cornerstone of her philosophy of education.
The ‘epiphany’ passages I read in Chapter 22 of Parents & Children (A Catechism of Educational Theory) look at how habits originate and how they may be corrected.

Some of the ideas discussed in this chapter are:

• That disposition, intellect, genius, come pretty much by nature.

• That character is an achievement, the one practical achievement possible to us for ourselves and for our children.

Character is the result of conduct.
We have ‘made’ ourselves by the thoughts we have allowed ourselves to think, by the words we have spoken, and by the things we have done.
How we behave (our conduct) has its origin in the way we habitually think. We are accustomed to think in a certain way and so we also act in a certain way.
The links between thought and conduct and the origin of these habits was where I sat up and took notice.

CM poses the question: What is the origin of these habits of thought and act? Her answer is that it is usually inherited disposition.

‘The man who is generous, obstinate, hot-tempered, devout, is so, on the whole, because that strain of character runs in the family.’

Inherited disposition becomes more obvious to us when we marry someone who has been brought up in a family that has a very different strain of character running through it than the one we have been brought up in.
An inherited disposition may not be apparent until circumstances force it to surface e.g. when faced with loss, success, or major change. This was something I experienced in my teen years when my parents’ marriage fell apart.
I became more inclined to be pessimistic in my thought life (this was something my Dad had difficulty with) so much so that a close friend told me at the time that my mind was ‘like a gloomy cave!’

When I read the above passages from ‘Parents & Children’ recently, it shone a light on the course my thoughts had been taking at the time. I had allowed some old patterns of thought to cloud my thinking and hijack my emotions. I was feeling that old pessimism again.
I’m always surprised at how slyly the wrong habits of thinking gain their power.
I’d been reading ‘Tapestry of Life: Devotions for the Unique Woman’ by Nancy Corbett Cole, a book my husband gave me in 1994 and which I’ve read quite a few times since. She talked about taking every thought captive and reminded me that, ‘Salvation is both instant and constant. We are instantly saved at the moment we believe, and continually saved as we let go of the old life, and live in the new.’

Oswald Chambers said that ‘Salvation is easy because it cost God so much, but the manifestation of it in my life is difficult.’ 

The habits of the old life need to be replaced by new habits. Thomas a Kempis said, ‘One habit overcomes another one.’ So we develop the opposite good habit to replace the one we want to get rid of.
Bad habits make us slaves but once we establish new habits they make mental tracks for us that support and enable us to go in the direction we really desire to follow.

Unhealthy habits and negative thinking also close our eyes to the love of God and create the perfect environment for disappointment & despair. Our minds become gloomy caves and we lose hope. We may think our circumstances will never change, second guess the decisions we’ve made in the past, or believe a whole lot of things conjured up by a faulty perspective.

Corrie ten Boom, a survivor of the Ravensbrück Concentration Camp in WWII, a woman who knew all about fear, pessimism and despair, gave this advice:

‘If we do not see as much as we need or want to see, then we must tell it to the Lord. He will heal our eyes so that we see that the love of God is far greater than anything else.’

3 thoughts on “Character, Disposition and the Formation of Habits

  1. I found this to be interesting “ That disposition, intellect, genius, come pretty much by nature.” I read a fair amount of books by folks like Steve. Pinker who dig into human nature and where are personalities and behaviors come from. It seems the data points strongly to the fact that who we are is about 50% attributable to our genes.

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