The Fathers’ Response to the Three Kinds of Impulsivity

In our ever-changing, fast-paced contemporary world that rewards Type-A aggressive behavior and a results-oriented lifestyle, impulsivity can become our default mode for interacting with the world.  This “ready-fire-aim” approach to life can be framed as quick reflexes and speedy adaptation needed for success and getting ahead. Of course, if one’s gut reactions are wrong, that same approach can be one’s ruin.

Impulsivity, however, is not just about being an active, carpe-diem sort of person.  Acting on the spur of the moment is only one of the measures of impulsivity used by psychologists. Other expressions of impulsivity include the inability to focus on a given task and difficulty with careful planning. In technical terms, psychologists refer to these factors as motor, attentional, and planning impulsiveness. In each case, something else other than what we started to do grabs our attention and almost immediately we “decide” or rather let our impulse decide that that thing or that thought is desirable. And so without further ado or further reflection, we move our muscles, our intentions, and our thoughts in the direction that our impulses suggest. In many cases, the reward for giving in to our impulses is immediate, and so we learn to follow this easy, effortless behavioral pathway so much so that we may find ourselves having trouble getting anything done or even worse we may feel as though we are no longer really in control of ourselves.

In our political discourse, we see planning impulsivity when simplistic solutions are favored over patience and negotiation.  In our news media, we see a tipping of the hat to attentional impulsivity when information concerning daily events is delivered in terms of sound bites and easily digestible slogans. In our online activity, we see motor impulsivity when we surf the net clicking on link after link with no real forethought of where we might really be going. Often, we see all three kinds of impulsivity in our own selves: for instance when we open the refrigerator while daydreaming and forget about plans to diet. Such innocent impulsivity may not be a major problem, but when it is, it can disrupt our lives and the lives of others.

The old adage “think-before-you-act” is meant to contraindicate relying on impulsivity.  Yet, the thrill of immediate action and the pleasure of instant gratification make thinking, patience and an appreciation of the complexity of a given situation unattractive alternatives. Impulsivity has indeed garnered a certain acceptance in a world that prizes the fulfillment of desires and the attainment of happiness as the ultimate goal in life. Nevertheless, psychologists and experts in the life of the spirit warn us that such behavior is actually deleterious in the long term. In fact, the opposite of impulsivity—controlling one’s movements, focusing one’s thoughts, and planning one’s day—can bring other blessings the impulsive do not experience such as a sense of agency and a freedom to make hard choices that are ultimately more beneficial. The holy fathers’ counsels offer an alternative to impulsivity. It is called watchfulness. It means being aware of the thoughts, not reacting to the thoughts, and acting in a way that leads towards the blessedness of the Kingdom of Heaven. In other words, the fathers offer a blessed way of life that is almost the mirror opposite of the impulsivity encouraged by contemporary culture.

In order to not impulsively do this or that, the fathers suggest being attentive, guarding the heart, and being watchful. At a preliminary stage, this involves simply being aware of the thoughts without acting on them or being aware of them and deliberately not acting on them. In other words, it involves not giving in to motor impulsivity. For example in his discourses, Abba Dorotheos advised the brothers to follow the example of a monk who cuts off his impulses:  “His thoughts say to him, ‘Go over there and investigate,’ and he says to his thoughts, ‘No, I won’t’ and he cuts off his desire. Again, he finds someone gossiping, and his thoughts say to him, ‘You go and have a word with them,’ and he cuts of his desire and does not speak. Or again his thoughts say to him, ‘Go and ask the cook what’s cooking?’ and he does not go, but cuts off his desire. Then he sees something else, and his thoughts say to him, ‘Go down and ask who brought it’ and he does not ask” (On Renunciation). This is the very opposite of being impulsive and eventually the thoughts lose their strength and their attractiveness, so that the monk himself becomes truly free. The recently canonized Saint Paisios the Athonite has said, “Thoughts are like airplanes flying in the air. If you ignore them, there is no problem. If you pay attention to them, you create an airport inside you and permit them to land!” (On Positive Thinking, Part III). And of course, the end result of this inner airport is chaos, subjection to every whim that crosses our mind, and ultimately a loss of human freedom, not to mention divine peace.

Dealing with attentional impulsivity is, for the fathers, an even greater struggle. Saint John Climacus advises, “constantly wrestle with your thought, and whenever it wanders call it back to you” (Ladder, Step 4, 92). For ascetics, such as Saint Isaac the Syrian, one needs to watch over one’s attention, because distraction gives rise to the passions and the passions give rise to sin: “As children are not born without a mother, so passions are not born without distraction of the mind, and sin is not committed without converse with passions.” Likewise when the passions are stirred, “your mind’s distraction and the pettiness and instability of your thinking will increase” (Homily 48). In other words, a wandering, undisciplined mind will have many conversational partners, some of whom will lead the soul away from the love of God and into a trackless wilderness of sin in which the unstable mind becomes uncontrollable. Again, watchfulness is the answer, but in order for the soul to stay fixed on one thought, one worthy thought, it needs to be and feel like it is absolutely necessary to do so. A matter of life or death. Such a condition for real watchfulness and attention is provided only by genuine repentance, characterized by a hatred for sin, a love for God, and a desire for His mercy that leads to calling out like the blind Bartimaeus, “Lord Jesus Christ have mercy on me!” and then receiving light from the Giver of Light Himself.

Finally, dealing with planning impulsivity, the answer of the fathers is the Church, which according to Saint John Chrysostom, is “not only a place but also a plan of life: I mean not the walls of the Church but the laws of the Church” (Homily 2 on Eutropius). In other words, through the cycles of fasting and preparation for the feasts, one learns to make the most important preparation and plan that one will have in life: to meet one’s Maker. Christians are called to be like the person who “intends to build a tower and first sits down and counts the cost to see if he has enough to finish it” (Luke 14:28). This means planning for virtue, planning to make the right decisions, planning to live the life Christ desires us to live. As Syrian writer Aphrahat once wrote, “Whosoever desires to become a merchant, let him buy for himself the field and the treasure that is in it. Whosoever receives the good seed, let him purge his land from thorns. Whosoever desires to be a fisherman, let him cast forth his net at every time… Whosoever has begun to build a tower, let him count up all the cost thereof. Whosoever builds ought to finish, that he be not a laughing-stock to them that pass by the way. Whosoever sets his building on the rock, let him make its foundations deep, that it may not be cast down by the billows. Whosoever wishes to fly from the darkness, let him walk while he has light… Whosoever is invited to the Bridegroom, let him prepare himself” (Demonstration 6 of Monks). Preparation is part and parcel of the Christian life in metaphor and in fact.

Life in the Church can provide healing not only for planning impulsivity, but also motor impulsivity and attentional impulsivity. The Church’s call to long vigils, prolonged fasting, and periods of stillness provide the faithful with ascetical feats designed to bridle and redirect the appetitive faculty of their souls that contributes to impulsivity and wreaks havoc in their lives, so that they will come to desire “the one thing needful” (Luke 10:42) and that their will and the will of God become one. For the impulsive, this will be a battle that requires them to force themselves, remembering our Lord’s words, “And from the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven suffereth violence, and the violent take it by force” (Matthew 11:12). But it is certainly worth struggling to “press toward the mark for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus.”

And so, by cutting off the will, by watchfulness, and by intentionally following the ascetic life of the Church, the impulsive can become vigilant, the agitated peaceful, and the enslaved free. Then, one finds true attentiveness that is “the subjection of the thoughts, the palace of the mindfulness of God, the stronghold that enables us patiently to accept all that befalls. It is the ground of faith, hope, and love…Then, along with attentiveness you have so wished for, the whole choir of the virtues—love, joy, peace, and the others—will come to you” (On Watchfulness and the Guarding of the Heart). Certainly, the thrill of action and the pleasure of instant gratification pale in comparison to these heavenly gifts set aside for those who curtail their impulsivity for the sake of Christ.

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