What Catholics Can Learn from a Cartoonist’s Failures

Sunday’s Washington Post had an interesting article based on a new book by Scott Adams, the creator of Dilbert, in which he argues that the key to conversion isn’t willpower but being smart about timing.

Obviously, he’s talking about such things as exercise (how many people do you know who vow to exercise regularly but fail to do so, or start some new super-restrictive diet), not religion.

But  he’s on to something.  Let’s say you want to increase your prayer life, so you decide to get up at 6 a.m. rather than 7 a.m.–but you’re really a night person.  You’re almost sure to fail.  But if you decided, for instance, to get up at 6:45 rather than 7 to pray, you just might succeed.

One of Adams more important insights is that goals are for losers, systems are for winners.  That’s important for Catholics because in many ways Catholicism is about systems.  We got to Mass every Sunday, without fail.  When we stumble, we go to confession.  We have a bunch of systems designed to help us — Liturgy of the Hours is one, Opus Dei is another, Regnum Christi is another, Confraternity of Penitents is yet another.

The key is persistence.  But persistence can be defeated if whatever discipline we are using doesn’t work for us.  For instance,  when I decided to start praying the Liturgy of the Hours, and looked at my work schedule, I realized I couldn’t do both Morning Prayer and Office of Readings before getting ready for work at 7:30.  That would require getting up at 6 a.m., and since I worked until 11 p.m., that just simply wouldn’t work longterm.

So after some experimentation, I set my alarm for 7 a.m. and discovered I could pull myself out of bed, do Morning Prayer then — and leave Office of Readings for some other time.  Some experimentation led me to discover the best “other time” was late in the evening.

Adams’s argument essentially is that we take small steps to get where we want to get.  And that we learn as much as we can along the way.

I had a woman in my RCIA class a few years ago who was adamant that the church hadn’t any business “telling her what to do with her body” — i.e., to stop using birth control pills.

But RCIA had raised for her the question about whether the Pill was healthy.  She had already found that the Church moral teachings were almost always leading to a healthier lifestyle.  Eventually she discovered that (1) the World Health Organization says the active ingredient in The Pill is a Class I carcinogen, and (2) modern natural family planning, such as the Creighton Method, is much more reliable than the pill or similar artificial devices in avoiding poorly timed pregnancies.  Now she’s very angry at politicians, feminist groups and others that misled her into using a method that puts her at much higher risk for breast cancer.

Adams also argues that timing is important.  I agree with that, based on my own experience.  There are times in the day when it’s comfortable for me to spend 40 minutes on the elliptical machine and times when that 40 minutes is real torture.  Few of us do things that are real torture for very long.

His theories apply also for things like weight loss and fasting.  Eating some strange diet isn’t likely to last long, regardless of how much weight we lose temporarily, and we are more likely to maintain a fast if we discover those foods that enable us to be comfortable as we reduce our food intake.

Adams’s book isn’t a religious book.  But based on the Washington Post article, is probably one that believers seeking to improve their ascetical practices would benefit from reading.

The promise of the book is that you’ll find some novel ideas to help you on your journey to success.  That’s what Catholicism is all about — success as a human being, in a good, nongrasping way, and success in a way that gives us eternal life.


About Joel Whitaker

Joel Whitaker is a long-time professional journalist (Tampa Bay Times, Wall Street Journal, Philadelphia Bulletin, Institutional Investor, executive newsletters) and Catholic convert. He is the RCIA coordinator for his parish.
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