Changing a Lifetime of Behavior

I am a 61 yr. old Christian male. I was brought up in a strict home, children should be seen but not heard. My Father was a stickler about everything; lights, water, doors and was constantly correcting me. I too have become a nit picker.

I pray for Go d to grant me patience and understanding, but it is so hard for me. What can I do in addition?  Is there a passage in the Torah/Bible which will give me guidance and help me to grow and become a better husband, grandfather etc.?

I don’t want people, my wife in particular, to become bitter and resentful towards me. G d willing you can give me an answer.

Oh by the way, my wife and I are regular watchers of your program on TCT. G d Bless you, your wife and family for you are a ray of hope in a dark world.

Kurt G.

Dear Kurt,

Wow. That is our reaction to your letter. Being willing to assess things afresh and to embrace the hard work involved in uprooting decades of bad habits makes you a rare individual.  We feel proud to have you among the audience of  our Ancient Jewish Wisdom TV show

While we greatly value prayer and Bible study, our answer is not going to be to read a few verses of Scripture or an exhortation to pray harder. We have something far more challenging for you to undertake.  But it will work.  We believe that when it comes to working on our character traits, only actions count.   You should certainly pray for His assistance and there are many verses that can speak to your heart, but you need to take action.

One of the great flashes of Biblical insight that we can all use effectively to transform our lives for the better is this: It’s not our thoughts that change our actions as much as it is our actions that change our thoughts.  Act now the way you would act if you already felt the way you wish you felt and your feelings will eventually fall into compliance with your actions.  Please reread that last sentence again.  Then you will understand why there is no more ardent advocate for the anti-smoking position than the former smoker who took the profound action of quitting. 

Rather than trying to acquire patience and understanding as emotional abstracts in the hope that they that will then change your actions, realize that changing your actions (even if, at first,  it feels false to you) will result in greater patience and understanding. The trick is consistency and expecting a long race, not a sprint.

Therefore for right now, focus on the specific few actions you most wish to start doing and upon those you most wish to obliterate from your repertoire

Having watched yourself follow in some of your father’s damaging footsteps, you are well aware of the negative consequences of your behavior. We would like to offer four concrete ideas with which to start your journey. 

  1. Pick one or two very specific things to work on that are within your reach. Trying to do too much almost inevitably will lead to giving up. Perhaps you can make one positive and one negative resolution. For example, commit yourself to one hour a day—maybe in the morning or at dinner time— when you will say nothing negative to or about anyone!  At the same time, commit yourself to noticing and articulating something once a day that your wife does for which you are grateful or something you appreciate about her. If you are critical outside that hour or fail to thank her properly for everything she does, don’t beat yourself up. Once this hour of the day and this one positive statement have become routine and easy, add another incremental step. You might extend the time to two hours. 
  2. Start your day by writing down in a private notebook three things for which you are grateful.
  3. Each night before going to bed/sleep, maintain a written daily journal of your successes and failures that day in the specific area on which you are working. This keeps you accountable to yourself and to God. If you have a male friend in your life to whom you can report once a week, that will be a great help. He should be someone who can provide strength and support as you fight this battle.
  4. Let your wife know how much you care for her and how you are working to be more worthy of her. Ask her to have patience with you as you strive to improve. You and she must both know that you will sometimes fail. Greatness comes from trying again and again.

Based on our experience with many other wonderful warriors fighting the war of personal development, we can confidently say that using these four tactics, we expect you will achieve encouraging results by the end of the first thirty days. Then on to the next stage!

The American folk-artist known as Grandma Moses began painting seriously at the age of 78. The original Moses began his career in leadership at the age of 80. Harland David Sanders was older than you are now when, after a lengthy string of business failures, he got the idea of franchising his chicken recipe, creating Kentucky Fried Chicken.  Ignore any voices inside of you telling you that you are too old or entrenched in your ways to change. As ancient Jewish wisdom states, “According to the effort is the reward.” It also says, “Who is strong? He who can overcome his bad habits.”

May your efforts bear fruit and bring happiness to your family,

Rabbi Daniel and Susan Lapin


25 thoughts on “Changing a Lifetime of Behavior”

    1. We’re always delighted when something we write comes at just the right time, Janice. Thank you for letting us know.

  1. What you mentioned about the former smoker may be true, but unfortunately all too often reformed smokers are among the most self righteous and intolerant people I’ve ever come across. Most nonsmokers are just that, but many ex-smokers are unbearable, similar to people who have become vegetarian or vegan and who then adopt an attitude toward anyone who eats meat with disdain and a kind of moral superiority.

    1. Rabbi Daniel Lapin

      Dear Mark–
      I think that was exactly what we said. Nobody is as ardent an antismoking advocate that a former smoker who quit.

  2. Wow! What excellent advice! This advice applies to me. I was already aware of the concept but needed to be reminded. Now I need to DO what you’ve described. Thank you!

  3. Mussar study would be good for character development and positive change. Alan Morinis has a good course, or just get the book Everyday Holiness to start

    1. Rabbi Daniel Lapin

      Thanks Paula–
      We’re not automatically locked into the idea that mussar, a specific attempt at creating a program for personal moral development from the late 1800s is necessarily a practical and appropriate solution for everyone. For some it works but not for everyone, particularly if individuals are grappling with very practical issues that need urgent solutions. I am aware of Alan’s excellent work and he, along with others like Rabbi Kelleman have done much to popularize this avenue of thinking. When responding to those who submit questions to our Ask The Rabbi page, we always take into account the writings of Mussar like Mesilat Yesharim, Chovot HaLevabot, and several other seminal works.

  4. This advice is powerful and means a lot to me. I also was raised by a very strict father in the baby boom period. My mother was more lenient. However some of what the writer wrote I can identify with and I will definitely try the actions you suggested in your reply to him. I often pray for God’s assistance but the Actions techniques definitely sounds logical. Thanks so Thanks so much.

    Yvette Berry..Barbados

  5. Thank you so much! I, too, will implement your points, in overcoming a loveless upbringing by parents
    who were repeating the cycle of inadequate parenting!

    1. Carolyn, What a wonderful gift to give your children – the example of a mother striving to improve herself. If I can give you a piece of advice that was invaluable to me (though I am not implying that my parents were like yours), it is to find a mother who acts the way you would like to act and spend time watching her. Even in the park or supermarket you can have eyes out for mothers who are setting an example, though having a close friend or mentor will allow you a broader view.

  6. Dr Patricia Allen

    Great advice! Powerful advice. Feelings will follow the actions. And then how good it feels.

    1. Dr. Patricia, it does feel wonderful when we can look back over a period of time and actually see that we have changed. Though the struggle sometimes doesn’t feel so good when we are going through it.

  7. In the words of today’s world, Like OMG!!! I too say, this spoke VOLUMES to me. I too had a very strict father. It would have been very easy and understandable if I had continued with what I saw and heard from him. But I made a decision to stop the vicious cycle of poverty of thought at a young age. In fact, it was before I was even married. Even so, my life has been a continual process of personal growth development. At 25 years of age, I gave my life to the Lord and the process just got better. Your words of advice are spot-on. Since I’ve started listening and watching your work I’ve incorporated some of your suggestions and let me say, they work! Kurt G. would definitely improve and prosper in following your plan of action. God bless your work and ministry. Indeed you are a ray of hope.

    1. Steve, I think that your words are a ray of hope as well. Thank you for letting us know that we are on the right track. Our society today leans towards condemning others rather than working on ourselves. As you know, working on improving ourselves is what sets us up for successful lives.

  8. I’m exactly like this gentleman. Very old fashion because of my upbringing. I’m part of the baby boomer era whose parents were autocratic. Until now, I still believe I’m better than the younger generations and it has cause extreme friction in my family.
    Your prescriptions made me realize my unhappiness and frustration with my family could be self inflicted being too self centered and not being open-minded and understanding.
    I’m glad I came across this discussion but I know it will be an uphill claim for me.
    My the Lord almighty God help me overcome my weakness.

    Note: I’m already a subscriber.

    1. Larry, we are delighted to hear that our answer shed some light for you and wish you well on your journey. You are making such an important point that very often when we are unhappy with others, the key to changing that lies with us rather than with them.

  9. Kurt’s dad sounded so much like my dad was that I thought it must be one of my siblings that wrote to you! I have 6 that I would like to send this to. Thank you!

    1. Jane, it sounds like you and your siblings formed a team to support each other. How invaluable!

  10. Great advice. I always appreciate your thoughtful approach and guidance. It isn’t about your age, as you state. My mother, who passed away last year at 100 years old, always told me that she felt like 24 until she looked in the mirror. She was a great role model.

  11. WOW!!
    This spoke VOLUMES to me…and bitterness is not my problem!
    I have think the ‘steps’ provided can be a real help to ANY PROBLEM or DILEMMA one is facing. Thank you for such sage advice!!

    1. Holly, we are truly grateful if you can apply this advice to your own personal situation. We know it has worked for us.

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