As a dog returns to his own vomit, so a fool repeats his folly

What do you suppose King Solomon thought when he said in Proverbs 26:11, “As a dog returns to his own vomit, so a fool repeats his folly.” Wasn’t he trying to teach us that constantly regurgitating (repeating) bad habits is as disgusting as a dog returning to its own vomit? He used a strong image to make a point, but for good reason. You see, bad habits weigh us down, hold us back, and prevent us from reaching our potential. It’s more than our potential that’s at stake, it’s also our happiness.

The formula for happiness is simple: Be good, do good, and you will feel good. By “be good” I mean be what you ought to be, and by “do good” I mean do what you ought to do. What is it that you ought to be doing? Let your own conscience be your guide. When you do what you ought to be doing, you will feel good. In other words, you will be happy. When we act as we shouldn’t, we experience unhappiness. That’s the main reason it’s important to eliminate bad habits. For a clearer picture of the relationship between behavior and happiness, let’s look at a concrete example.

Tom is a first year university student. His parents are paying the tuition and he works part-time to earn some extra money. His friends love to party and he is joining them more often then he should. So, he’s neither getting enough sleep nor spending enough time studying. The result? His grades are slipping, and so is his mood. Since this has been going on for months, he feels guilty. After all, his parents worked hard for their money and expect him to take advantage of their generosity by studying. They are reasonable and are not applying pressure on him to get straight “A’s.” They merely hope he will try his best. But he hasn’t been doing that, so he feels ashamed. In fact, he may even fail the coming exam, so he’s anxious as well.

The guilt, shame, anxiety, and fear that Tom feels are dark clouds that have blotted out any happiness. In fact, he’s in pain. He tries to numb the pain by seeking pleasure, so he goes on a shopping spree. After the momentary pleasure disappears, the shopping bills appear. After buying things he didn’ t need, he now has to sell things he does need to pay his bills. He’s now more depressed then before and just can’t push himself to study. Again, he seeks pleasure to lessen his pain. This time he needs something more stimulating. So, he starts a sexual relationship with a student in one of his classes. The months pass, but he fails. They may kick him out of school, but at least he’s receiving a lot of pleasure. That is, he was until Julie told him that she is pregnant and will need child support. Tom’s world is collapsing (as is Julie’s), all because of some bad habits.

If we’re not careful, we can easily become ensnared by bad habits, for as Tryon Edwards wrote, “Any act often repeated soon forms a habit; and habit allowed, steady gains in strength. At first it may be but as a spider’s web, easily broken through, but if not resisted it soon binds us with chains of steel.” Samuel Johnson expressed the same idea differently, “The chains of habit are generally too week to be felt, until they are too strong to be broken.”

Still another author warns of the danger of bad habits creeping up on us by telling the following story: “You can’t kill a frog by dropping him into hot water. For when you do so, he reacts so quickly that he jumps out unharmed. But if you put him in cold water and gradually warm it until it is scalding hot, you have him cooked before he knows it. The intrusion of bad habits in our lives is very much like this.”

As a general rule, we stumble into bad habits. For example, without planning to do so, Tom fell into a crowd that was more interested in partying than studying. So, we have to remain ever watchful of our behavior and take corrective action when it’s called for. Good habits are usually developed through conscious effort on our part. Once we form a habit, it takes over and forms us. The sum total of our habits solidify into our character, so they can be our best friends or our worst bosses. Ben Franklin put it nicely when he wrote, “Your net worth to the world is usually determined by what remains after your bad habits are subtracted from your good ones.” He also told us that, “It is easier to prevent bad habits than to break them.”

Do you want to achieve success and avoid failure? Success and failure are simply habits, and the good news is that good habits are just as difficult to break as bad ones. You don’t believe me? Would you stop brushing your teeth for one month if I were to pay you fifty dollars? Probably not. How come? Because good habits are just as difficult to break as bad ones! Motivation is the ignition that gets us started on the road to success and good habits are the fuel that keeps us making progress. Just as bad habits left unchecked snowball and lead to a downward spiral, good habits escalate and lead to an upward spiral. Each good habit we gain frees us to focus on bigger and better things. At the end of the day, we will experience the joy of being a self-made man or woman.

Tom’s mom and dad were generous. But Tom needed something more than money can offer. He needed self-discipline and the skills to develop good habits. If you are a parent of young children, you have the opportunity to offer them this priceless gift, for as Lydia Sigourney wrote, “In early childhood you may lay the foundation of poverty or riches, industry of idleness, good or evil, by the habits to which you train your children. Teach them right habits then, and their future life is safe.