A house divided

No tree has branches so foolish as to fight against themselves.
Ojibwa Indian saying

How would you interpret the above quotation? At face value, it’s certainly true: trees don’t have branches that fight each other. So I suspect the Ojibwa Indians must have had humans in mind.

But this idea of fighting against ourselves, of being our own worst enemies, didn’t originate with the Ojibwa Indians. The Roman Poet Ovid, through his character Medea, wrote, “I am dragged along by a strange new force. Desire and reason are pulling in different directions. I see the right way and approve it, but follow the wrong.”

St. Paul, writing in Galatians 5:17, wrote, “For what the flesh desires is opposed to the Spirit, and what the Spirit desires is opposed to the flesh; for these are opposed to each other, to prevent you from doing what you want.”

Medea said she saw the right way and approved it but followed the wrong. Was Medea any different from you and me? Were the Ojibwa Indians governed by some different force than we are? Was there something special about the Galatians that prevented them from doing what they wanted to do?

The answer is no; all of them were simply human. If you want to understand why we can’t or won’t do the things we know we should, then you need to understand a bit about how the mind works.

We all have trouble doing the things we know we should. We can’t stay on diets, exercise plans, or self-development programs. We have the best of intentions, but far too often, our intentions simply aren’t good enough.

Why is it so difficult to do the things we know we should? In simple terms, we are a house divided: we each have a mind that works against itself. The rational part of the mind can understand a situation and make a logical decision about the best course of action. But the emotional part of our minds — the subconscious mind — acts automatically and often hijacks control, overruling the rational mind to satisfy emotional needs. Take eating healthy: it’s very easy for our rational mind to “see the right way and approve” healthy eating habits, but after a stressful or upsetting day, our subconscious feels the need for comfort food.

Is there a way to prevent or control this response? Yes, but it’s not what you might think. Typically, we try to control our behavior with willpower, but that technique won’t always succeed when emotional needs are in the driver’s seat. We need to recognize that it’s nearly impossible to exert control over our subconscious mind and instead find ways to make healthy behavior automatic.

If you want to engage in regular exercise, team up with a friend and commit to exercise together; time with your friend will provide emotional rewards. If you want to eat healthier, find a way to shift the decisions so they’re automatic: for instance, don’t allow junk food in the house so that you can’t be tempted. You can also seek out healthy foods that you truly enjoy and keep a ready supply on hand.

Be aware that the mind is divided, with the subconscious mind having significantly more influence over your behavior than the rational mind. If you want to be successful in doing the things “you see and approve”, don’t pin your success on willpower alone.

And if a house be divided against itself, that house cannot stand.
The Gospel according to Mark 3:25

Copyright © 2012 John Chancellor


A house divided — 2 Comments

  1. What a great message, as usual. How I look forward to each of them. Looking back on my life, I recall many times when I came upon a fork in the road and chose the wrong path, though the right one was clearly marked.

    Thanks and blessings!

  2. Bob,

    Thanks so much for your kind words. It is very difficult for us to comprehend how much we really pull against our own best interest.

    Thanks for reading and for sharing your thoughts.