The other night, my chavrusa told me about a question that Rav Yisrael Salanter once asked. It goes something like this (I’m clearly paraphrasing and modernizing): How many people do you know that became Baalei Teshuvah at the age of 80? The answer is likely: few to none. The next question is: How many people do you know who became Baalei Teshuvah in their 20s? The answer: Plenty. Rav Yisrael says that this seems to go against logic and nature.
A 20 something year-old has many strong taivas (desires). It is a time in life when one is often looking to move away from restrictions and experience the “freedom” that young adulthood brings. Often, the issues of reward and punishment and moral or religious restrictions are the last thing from one’s mind. Yet, many, many of those 20 something year-olds overcome those taivas and do teshuvah.
One would think that even more 80 year-olds would do the same. After all, the taivas of an 80 year-old have certainly waned and at least partially dissipated. Additionally, an 80 year-old will be more likely to think about how things will be in the “hereafter” and about “making peace” with his Maker. Yet, we simply don’t see too many 80 year-olds becoming BTs. Why is that?
Rav Yisrael answers that this is because hergel –ingrained habit– is stronger than taivah–desire. A 20 year-old can often overcome the strongest of urges and desires and do tesuvah while an 80 year-old with a severely diminished level of taivah and a chronological impetus to think of the end of his days has a more difficult time doing teshuvah because of the ingrained habits of his lifetime.
This is a powerful point, not about octogenerians but about the power of hergel–habit. Rav Yisrael teaches that recognizing the power of hergel is the first step toward correcting our bad habits. The curious thing about habit is that while it seems so difficult to break a bad habit, the good ones fall so easily. If one were to decide to wake up a half-hour earlier on weekdays in order to be on time for shul or to say a short prayer or learn a small piece, the habit of waking up later will be quite difficult to break. Once it is broken, however, and even after waking up earlier has already become a good habit, one day of sleeping late will make waking up at the earlier time the next day quite difficult. (Wow, that was a long sentence!)
Habit is tenacious. Realizing that is the first step toward beginning to recognize and break our bad habits while establishing and ingraining good ones. Some pointers I’ve come across on building good habits include: taking graduated smaller steps to reach a larger goal, rewarding oneself when reaching a certain goal (for example, an entire week of waking up early) and involving others, such as a friend, co-worker, spouse, or parent in your goal. This can be done two ways. You can have someone attempt to create the good habit with you or you can involve them in assisting and encouraging you to reach your goal.
Keep in mind that l’fum zarah agrah (the reward is in accordance with the effort). The reward for breaking bad habits and ingraining good ones is commensorate with the difficulty in doing so.