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Rip Tides and Personal Conviction

Growing up near the ocean, I learned to look for rip tides. These are strong currents that pull swimmers out to sea and account for drowning accidents every year. Curiously enough, it is often the calm water that reveals the presence of a riptide. The rest of the surface is regular in its undulation, while the undertow current breaks the pattern, appearing calm and undisturbed.

If you are swimming along happily enough through the waves, a rip current can surprise you and carry you out to sea, almost without warning. This seems to be similar to what happens when one has no personal convictions but merely adapts to the social situation.

Instead of assimilating criteria and making sure your habits match up with your beliefs, you might prefer to just “go with the flow.” The problems come when the flow goes in the wrong direction.

1. Formative environment

Of course, it is not bad to be in a good formative environment. Seeing others doing what they are supposed to be doing can be a help to us to remember our own duty. The problem is when we are not internalizing the reasons behind the exterior discipline.

A good formative environment has a well-defined structure. It is conducive to making good decisions. The first formative environment we experience is our family. There are certain expectations that are set in all areas of our life. I remember that at home, one simple rule of etiquette that was enforced consistently was “no elbows on the table.” You could be sure to get a rise out of Dad, putting your elbows on the table during dinner. Prayers are said as a family before meals. This could be a bit annoying sometimes, not because of not wanting to say the prayers, but because it could be a momentous task to get everybody to arrive at the table at the same time. Sunday meant Mom and the kids were going to Mass.

In an atmosphere like a seminary, there is also a strong formative environment. A schedule helps keep everybody on the same page as far as essential activities. Prayer and reflection are encouraged, as well as study, work, and recreation. Some people can feel this like an external imposition, but this is where it is important to get inside of our own heads.

2. Personal conviction

Whenever we are living in a formative environment, we should reflect on the purpose of the activities and make them our own. It is normally not very difficult to understand why we do things, and when the reason escapes us, we can always ask.

Learning to assimilate criteria is an important element of the formative process. This is done by forming the habits required and grounding them in our own personal convictions. It is easy to want to jump ahead to acquiring attitudes and behaviors, without doing the work of forming convictions. Maturing the decisions to be made is part of the formative process and helps to establish personal conviction.

When there is an emphasis on external discipline, there can be more of a risk to rush the formative process. This does not mean necessarily that the external discipline should be eliminated but rather that more effort should be made to assimilate the criteria and from personal conviction. Sometimes, the external helps can aid the formation of personal conviction. This happens especially when there is not enough internal discipline or motivation. This is why people hire personal trainers. They need the motivation! There is a lot of added value with the expertise and knowledge a trainer provides, but the most important thing is the accountability. You can’t skip your workout if Sven is waiting for you at 3:30. We all need some external discipline sometimes. It just can’t be overpowering or take the place of our internal discipline.

3. Proof is in the pudding

Some people suggest that a strong formative environment limits personal freedom and makes it impossible to form true convictions. Although this is certainly a possible risk, it does not have to be the case.

By internalizing the reasons behind what I am doing and reflecting to make my own personal convictions grow deeper, I am taking ownership of my own life.

The test comes when I am faced with an adverse situation, without the support of the structure that has helped me so far. If I have worked on and maintained my convictions, I will be able to stand up to the pressure and will flourish in the new situation.

When I arrived to my first priestly ministry, I was amazed at how the vast array of my activities had seemingly little to do with what I had learned in the many years of seminary training. No amount of theology was going to help me to promote a weekend retreat or fill out insurance forms. However, the convictions that I had acquired and deepened over the years did help me in my new ministry and little by little, on-the-job experience helped me make up for what I had not yet learned.

Questions for reflection

1. What are the benefits of an environment with a marked external discipline? What are some possible disadvantages?

2. How long does it take to change behaviors into habits?

3. What role do your convictions play in your life?

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