We are what we repeatedly do

Sep 20, 2021 Michael Bishop spiritual formation habits

I saw a quote today attributed to Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung which reads: “You are what you do, not what you say you’ll do.” Jung would be the first to concede that we are more than just what we do, but the point he’s making relates to actions and intentions. It is our actions that determine who we become, not our intentions. My long-standing plans to learn to play the piano don’t make me a pianist; not even close.

More than that though, it is what we do repeatedly that forms us. Another quote, apparently written by Will Durant, but based on the work of Aristotle, makes the point that “we are what we repeatedly do. Excellence then, is not an act, but a habit”.

Over the last couple of months, I’ve joined a group of Kearsney staff and spouses for a few nights each week in the school gym under the watchful and gracious guidance of a skilled member of the gym staff. My body has creaked and protested, but this week our mentor said he was impressed by how far we had all come. At least I think that’s what he said – I was breathing too heavily to be sure.

He’s right though – we have improved. But the reason has nothing whatsoever to do with natural attributes or talents, but simply the fact the we have kept turning up. We are what we repeatedly do.

It’s no secret that the same principle holds true in the spiritual life. Practices like prayer and worship and reflective reading of Scripture are helpful, but they only become transformative when we keep turning up. And like with the gym, it is often easier to maintain these practices when we do them in community.

As we make plans to return to indoor services, it probably feels like a disruption of new habits that have become a part of our lives over the last 18 months. It’s a key moment though, isn’t it, as we think intentionally about how we want to be formed. We are what we repeatedly do.