Habits, Purpose, and a Life Well-Lived

Reflections on Summer Reading

I hope you had a safe and fun-filled Labor Day! I enjoyed the beautiful weather at Longwood Gardens enjoying the sunshine, flowers, and fauna.

With the unofficial close to summer, it’s time to write about my favorite summer reads! I have fallen behind on my monthly reading round-up blog posts —forgive me readers! (all 5 of you!) You can check out my April and May highlights, and below I’ll wrap-up my summer favorites in one post. Rather than review each of these books separately, I want to pull together the threads within them. I hope it’s helpful and edifying!


Summer Favorites:

Atomic Habits: An Easy & Proven Way to Build Good Habits & Break Bad Ones by James Clear

You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit by James K.A. Smith

Gilead by Marilynne Robinson


“Habit formation is the process by which a behavior becomes progressively more automatic through repetition.”

I found Atomic Habits to be extremely practical and helpful with ideas and strategies for becoming a creature of good habits. Clear’s thesis is that tiny, consistent—“atomic-size”—habits aggregate to big life changes. His four laws of behavior change are a helpful framework to form healthy habits: make it obvious, attractive, easy, and satisfying (these can be inverted for breaking bad habits).

One concept I particularly liked was the relationship between habits and identity. Clear describes it simply: “Your habits shape your identity.” An example would be if one assumes the identity of a healthy person, it is easier to make healthy choices; of course, coupled with various other practices to establish healthy eating and exercising habits. But the way we think about ourselves does have a significant role in the way we act and order our lives.

Aside from reading the book, Clear provides many helpful resources on his website, and I’ve also been enjoying his twice weekly email newsletter. My critique comes from what I felt was missing. Habits are absolutely important. Healthy eating, living, exercising, reading, writing, etc. I for one, have been trying to increase and improve my writing this year and thinking through setting myself up for success with good habits is something important to me. But as helpful as Clear’s material is, it also felt a bit robotic and formulaic. Is there more to life than good habits?

I think yes.

A life of good habits with a lack of purpose is a life devoid of meaning.

Which is why I loved and highly recommend James K.A. Smith’s You Are What You Love.

Smith cuts to the core of the human heart, writing that our actions, behaviors, or “habits” flow from our longings and desires. We were made to worship and desire God, but our heart’s desires become disordered because of sin. Smith draws on the words of early Church fathers to describe this:

“You have made us for yourself, and our heart is restless until it rests in you.” Augustine opens with a design claim, a conviction about what human beings are made for. This is significant for a couple of reasons. First, it recognizes that human beings are made by and for the Creator who is known in Jesus Christ. In other words, to be truly and fully human, we need to “find” ourselves in relationship to the One who made us and for whom we are made. The gospel is the way we learn to be human. As Irenaeus once put it, “The glory of God is a human being fully alive.”

To put it simply, I am what I love. My habits – my lifestyle – flow from what I long for and love. Smith later invokes the Church reformers to illustrate this “worship”:

To say “you are what you love” is synonymous with saying “you are what you worship.” The great Reformer Martin Luther once said, “Whatever your heart clings to and confides in, that is really your god.” We become what we worship because what we worship is what we love. As we’ve seen, it’s not a question of whether you worship but what you worship—which is why John Calvin refers to the human heart as an “idol factory.” We can’t not worship because we can’t not love something as ultimate. 

Smith goes on to expose the idols of our age within secular culture and the church. And he poignantly shows how the sacramental gifts of the church should rightly form us.

“To be human is to be a liturgical animal, a creature whose loves are shaped by our worship…Christian worship, we should recognize, is essentially a counterformation to those rival liturgies we are often immersed in, cultural practices that covertly capture our loves and longings, miscalibrating them, orienting us to rival versions of the good life. This is why worship is the heart of discipleship.” 

This book was convicting, but also beautiful and freeing. The habit-forming gifts of the church are a special grace from the Lord to mold and shape our hearts, so that we can truly become the creatures with a purpose we were meant to be.

>>>p.s. I wrote an article this summer on our divine purpose within the creation mandate…I hope you find it edifying if you care to read!

In thinking about one’s habits and purpose in life, one can’t help but reflect upon what life might look like when we come to the end of our time here on earth. Marilynne Robinson’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel, Gilead, does just that. I’ve had this book on my “to-read” list for a while, and found it to be an enjoyable and leisurely read this summer. 

Gilead records the stream-of-consciousness journal entries of a country preacher in his last days. Reverend John Ames writes to his young son about a myriad of topics, from family history, amusing life anecdotes, and especially his memories as a pastor.

Robinson’s writing is both conversational and lyrical. One of my favorite examples:

The moon looks wonderful in this warm evening light, just as a candle flame looks beautiful in the light of morning. Light within light. It seems like a metaphor for something. So much does. Ralph Waldo Emerson is excellent on this point. It seems to me to be a metaphor for the human soul, the singular light within the great general light of existence. Or it seems like poetry within language. Perhaps wisdom within experience. Or marriage within friendship and love. I’ll try to remember to use this. 

His letters reflect on the intricacies of the human soul, the purpose of life, and his wrestling with deep theological questions. One thing shines through: he loved and served his family, his wife, his son, his parishioners, and his town, well.

What Gilead lacks in plot, it makes up for in droves with beautiful language, character study, and thoughtfulness. It is a reflection of a life well lived, and the desire to pass on a legacy to the next generation. It stood in stark contrast to me with Atomic Habits. As valuable as those psychological insights are, habits without purpose, and a purpose disconnected from the Creator, is meaningless. 

I highly recommend all of these titles! And perhaps I will get back into the “habit” of a monthly review, rather than quarterly. Enjoy and may your September be filled with good books and good habits 😊.


May Reading 📖 Recommendations

May was a month of hits and misses with the books I read. Several of the novels I read disappointed, and the length of my historical nonfiction pick, didn’t leave time for many other options. Yet, the three I wrote about below were all fantastic reads in the month of May!

Try Softer: A Fresh Approach to Move Us out of Anxiety, Stress, and Survival Mode by Aundi Kolber
The Splendid and the Vile: A Saga of Churchill, Family, and Defiance During the Blitz by Erik Larson
Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman


Try Softer: A Fresh Approach to Move Us out of Anxiety, Stress, and Survival Mode — and into a Life of Connection and Joy

Aundi Kolber’s Try Softer: A Fresh Approach to Move Us out of Anxiety, Stress, and Survival Mode — and into a Life of Connection and Joy is a breath of fresh of air, especially during a collective season of stress and uncertainty.

Kolber posits that a life of connection and joy can be found when we “approach life with more self-compassion,” just as Jesus commands us to love our neighbors as ourselves, so that we may see ourselves as God does: “as someone with infinite value who was created to be loved.” When we live with that truth as our center, we are able to face challenges and own our own story, which in turn enables us to have more compassion and empathy for others.

Along with this theological backdrop, the foundation of the “try softer” approach is found in the science of neurobiology – exactly how God created humans: “when we understand the physiology of our bodies, we can be empowered to try softer with ourselves.” Kolber explains brain and body physiology in a way that brings a great deal of light to how our body handles, processes, and stores anxiety and trauma. She also explains attachment theory, boundaries, and emotional tolerances, all with helpful practices to move through the challenges we face in these areas.

I highly recommend this book if you are interested in a more compassionate approach to life and our human bodies, rooted in Scripture and brain science. It is a gentle reminder that the way God created the human person and intended for us to be in relationships with one another, is a beautiful thing.

That’s not often the reality, as trauma and brokenness mar us, but there is a way of living that can lead us back into the place of belovedness.

“During our hardest, scariest times—whether our bodies feel stressed and jumpy or sluggish and slow—God is there to reassure us that we are not defined by our best days of our worst days. We are his beloved.”


The Splendid and the Vile: A Saga of Churchill, Family, and Defiance During the Blitz

I’ve enjoyed several of Eri kLarson’s books and this highly anticipated January release was no different. Larson brilliantly blends journal entries and letter correspondence with his historical account of the first year of Winston Churchill’s time as Prime Minister of England during World War II, May 1940 – May 1941. This approach personalizes the central characters—historical figures who quite literally impacted world history, or orbited around those who did—which has the effect of making them more extraordinary and yet more accessible.

I came away from The Splendid and the Vile with a profound sense of admiration for Churchill and his leadership and courage during a dark time in Europe, and yet with a healthy sense of his humanity, such as his irritableness, penchant for fine cigars, and his quirk of wandering 10 Downing Street in just a dressing robe (or less, as told in a humorous anecdote of an encounter with President Roosevelt later in 1941!).

The book recounts the battles in the air between the Luftwaffe and the Royal Air Force, and the death and destruction that ensued. I’d been familiar with some of the stories of the London bombings, through literature and history lessons, but this book provided a stark look at the devastation the Nazis inflicted on London from the air, and the pervasive sense of fear they wrought.

“The persistence of the roads and the increasing destruction also had a darker effect. Wrote novelist Rose Macaulay, on Monday September 23: ‘I am getting a burying phobia, result of having seen so many houses and blocks of flats reduced to piles of ruins from which people can’t be extracted in time to live…Harold Nicolson had a similar fear, which he confided to his diary the next day. ‘What I dread,’ he wrote, is being buried under huge piles of masonry and hearing the water drip slowly, smelling the gas creeping towards me and hearing the faint cries of colleagues condemned to a slow and ungainly death.’ Many Londoners began complaining of gastrointestinal distress, a condition called ‘Siren Stomach.’”

The Splendid and the Vile helps one to understand what the constant threat of bombing, along with the imminent fear of invasion, did to the British psyche during World War II. It was a fearful time, and part of Churchill’s genius was his ability to empathize with the suffering—he himself was often at danger during the bombings—along with his oratorical gift to bolster the courage and perseverance through. Just one example of many is a February 1941 address: “We shall not fail or falter; we shall not weaken or tire. Neither this sudden shock of battle, nor the long-drawn trials of vigilance and exertion will wear us down.”

Of course the history of World War II is vast. The Splendid and the Vile provides a singular look at the Battle of Britain, the first major military campaign to be fought entirely in the air and a critical front in the war, as well as a personal portrait of one of the 20th century’s great leaders.

“In the end, London endured, albeit with grave injuries. Between September 7, 1940, when the first large-scale attack on central London occurred, and Sunday morning, May 11, 1941, when the Blitz came to an end, nearly 29,000 of its citizens were killed, and 28,556 seriously injured.”


Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine

I was expecting more of a lighthearted read in Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine, but what I found was a novel of much depth and insight into human relationships.

Eleanor, at first a seemingly typical albeit a bit eccentric millennial, lives alone and has little social interaction beyond her 9-5 job. Her friendship with Raymond, a “slovenly” colleague from IT, drives the story, as Eleanor slowly opens up to a world of social connection, and with that, the ability to face the past that haunts her and holds her back.

This ended up being a very timely book to read during the pandemic and quarantine, as we have all been suffering from social isolation. It illustrated how checking in on people we care about can quite literally be life-saving. This time has also revealed the plague of loneliness and the dreadful effects of trauma and lack of social connections. As Eleanor describes it:

These days, loneliness is the new cancer–-a shameful, embarrassing thing, brought upon yourself in some obscure way. A fearful, incurable thing, so horrifying that you dare not mention it; other people don’t want to hear the word spoken aloud for fear that they might too be afflicted, or that it might tempt fate into visiting a similar horror upon them.”

Yet Eleanor Oliphant provides hope, as Eleanor allows friendship to seep into her. “I suppose one of the reasons we’re all able to continue to exist for our allotted span in this green and blue vale of tears is that there is always, however remote it might seem, the possibility of change.”

I actually listened to this through Audible, which I found highly enjoyable. The reader was very talented in bringing life to Eleanor and all of the characters, and since the setting is Scotland, the accents were very entertaining! Overall, I’d throughly recommend this book!