Debt is a looming part of my everyday life. When I graduated from college in 2013, I got accepted into a graduate studies program in southern Missouri, as well an assistantship program waived my tuition. I took out a student loan anyway, to pay for “food and rent.” And while yes, part of it did go toward those things, the majority of it went towards the Erin’s Glamorous Adult Life Fund. Target shopping sprees, dinners out with friends, extravagant gifts for my friends and family . . . and suddenly, I was in trouble.
In three years, I racked up a mountain of credit card debt. Despite being aware of the problem, my habits didn’t change. My outlook became, “I’m never going to get out of debt anyway–why try?” So I trapped myself in a cycle of using paychecks to pay down the cards, and then using the cards to pay for necessities like utilities and even groceries. Eventually, I had to move back in with my parents in an attempt to save a little bit of money and keep myself from going under.
It’s been a few months now and I’ve gotten a new job in a new city, moved back out on my own (responsibly this time) and I have become an avid fan of sales, coupons, bargain shopping and (finally!) budgeting.
But new habits don’t totally erase old habits, and sometimes it feels like the aftermath of these mistakes will define my future for my entire life. I often find myself falling into self-destructive talk.
If I had made better choices when I was 22 I wouldn’t even be in this mess.
My salary should be more than enough for me to live on and buy a home; if only 1/3 of everything I make wasn’t going to repay my own stupid debt.
I cannot believe how long I’m going to have to pay for those mistakes. It’s been years and I’m still struggling. Am I ever going to get out from under this water?
This last thought resounds in my mind like a gong, bouncing off every nook and cranny of my brain because it’s the same way I see my spiritual past. It’s a great trick of the devil to use our humanity against us when it comes to patterns. Habits are formed by small choices that add up to big results, like me spending a few bucks here or there and slowly erecting a mountain of debt. And in the same way, temptation and evil chip away at us slowly.
It’s just a thought here, a word there, then maybe a small action, or eventually a big one. And suddenly, our armor of God has been compromised and we feel like we may never live in the light again. There are vices and temptations I’ve struggled with in my adult life so far, and while I hope and pray that they are behind me, I find that some days my spirit isn’t as strong as others. And in those moments of weakness, the devil uses that same debt mentality to mess with my heart. It’s been years and you’re still struggling. You’re never going to get out from under this water.
The devil works hard, y’all. But God works harder. And He can and will use this habit-dependent part of our humanity to cultivate virtue in our lives.
I tend to shy away from the word “virtue.” More often than not, I equate a virtuous life with a daily hour of silence in the chapel, no more Instagram or Pinterest or Hulu–and definitely no more sinning. I’ve never seen a holy card with a saint wolfing down ice cream, swiping through Tinder, smoking weed or stomping spiders dead on sight. And since these are things that have either been a part of my story so far and aren’t anymore (Tinder and weed) or are a current part of my daily routine (ice cream and spider squashing), I have essentially convinced myself I don’t have what it takes to be virtuous or holy. Whatever compilation I am of my past decisions means that I only have what it takes to scrape by as a barely passable Christian.
Thankfully, I’m not as smart as I think I am, and those things aren’t what it means to be virtuous. As Robert Louis Stevenson* famously said, “Saints are sinners who kept trying.” Saints understood and understand that virtue is created one moment, one decision at a time.
Weeks ago my pastor said we don’t need to make sweeping declarations to change our lives or hearts. We just need to do the next right thing.
The next right thing.
Suddenly, virtue didn’t seem out of reach.
When I’m faced with a temptation of any kind, I can just say, “Today I will not buy this.” “Today I will not gossip.” “Today I will not text my ex.” Every small victory empowers us to make another good choice next. And again, and again, and again.
Never believe the lies that you’re not good enough or you’re already too far gone to make amends now. Praise God for temptation and hardship and trial because those are the moments that your faith is being formed.
Consider it all joy, my brothers, when you encounter various trials, for you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance.
James 1:2-3 (USCCB)
Every single moment is a decision and all it takes it the next right thing to turn back to the Lord and keep moving on that good path.
I read once that God only gives us life moment by moment because it’s so glorious in its entirety that we would be overwhelmed to the point of nonexistence. In other words, God’s plan is so good it would literally blow our minds if we knew it. So until then, let’s just take life one manageable decision at a time.
Don’t worry about making this season of life better, or this month, or this week, or even tomorrow. Just tell yourself to do the next right thing.
For God did not give us a spirit of cowardice but rather of power and love and self-control
2 Timothy 1:7 (USCCB)
*Some people quote this to St. Teresa of Calcutta. I didn’t know either of them so I’m leaning on Google pretty hard for this one. It’s good insight regardless of who said it.