In our discussion of habits we have learned that habits are formed through the “frequent and constant pairing of internal responses with external events.”1 We described this in terms of Charles Duhigg’s “habit-loop.”2 We also described how habits can actually create love/craving.3 This, however, presents us with a problem which is the subject of this article. Because habits are formed by “frequent and constant pairing” it is possible to learn bad habits without knowing it.
Some habits we choose to develop through practice. We choose to undergo the routine of piano practice or dance practice or learning to drive. These habits have their own habit-loops. And we choose to create them. But it is also possible that habit-loops are formed without our knowing. Someone may be commandeering our humanity for their own purposes. (The Power of Habit is about just that–about how companies, through knowledge of the habit-loop, create habits in us without us knowing). Consider a few examples of how we might learn something without knowing it.
Most of us are familiar with The Karate Kid even if we haven’t seen it. At least we are familiar with the famous Wax-On-Wax-Off scene. A younger generation may better know the newest incarnation of the film with Jaden Smith and Jackie Chan. For them Wax-On-Wax-Off has become Jacket-On-Jacket-Off. In the film Dre Parker comes to Mr. Han and asks him to teach him Kung-Fu. The first lesson is a lesson in respect. Dre has a bad habit of throwing his jacket on the floor instead of hanging it up. Mr. Han insists he put his jacket on, take it off, throw it on the ground, and then hang it up. Dre thinks this is all about respect. He comes to learn that while his mind may have been learning respect his body was learning Kung-Fu. The movements involved in his jacket exercises are the same ones used to defend and to strike in Kung-Fu. Dre is astonished at all that he learned without even knowing. Mr. Han explains this phenomenon by saying, “Kung-Fu lives in everything we do, Xiao Dre. It lives in how we put on the jacket, how we take off the jacket. It lives in how we treat people. Everything is Kung-Fu.” Just like he learned Kung-Fu without realizing it we can also learn to love a particular vision of The Good Life without realizing it. We could paraphrase Mr. Han and say, “Love lives in everything we do … Everything is love.” We can do so because “no habit or practice is neutral … All habits and practices are ultimately trying to make us into a certain kind of person. So one of the most important questions we need to ask is: Just what kind of person is this habit or practice trying to produce, and to what end is such a practice aimed?”4
I doubt many of us will be learning Kung-Fu from Jackie Chan, but that does not mean that we do not learn things in a similar manner. We often learn things without intending. First, consider the fact that many people know the Wax-On-Wax-Off reference even if they’ve never seen the movie. The reference is simply “in the air” and, like much of our knowledge (including habits), it is “caught not taught.” Second, there is a whole set of words called collocations which we know “by heart” without ever having been taught. These are word pairs which always appear in the same order. There is no rational reason as to why they must appear in that order but native speakers know in which order they are supposed to occur, and they recognize how odd those pairs sound in the wrong order. Phrases like “back and forth” sound odd when arranged as “forth and back.” “Down and out” also sounds off if reversed to become “out and down.” Native speakers would likely understand the meaning if the collocations were used incorrectly but they would also know that it is incorrect. Further, if a student was to ask why they must be in that order we would have no answer except, “They just are.” Collocations are “caught not taught.” We learned them simply by being regularly exposed to their “frequent and constant pairing.” Chances are most native speakers reading this never knew collocations existed. They were certainly never sat down with a list of word pairs and taught that these words must always appear in that order. That’s not how it works. We learned these things without knowing we were learning them.
These examples are different but the mechanism is the same. And the difference between these things is an important one. Certain habits touch nearer to the center of who we are than others. Learning collocations does not change us nearly so much as learning Kung-Fu. And learning to be compassionate touches us even nearer to our core. James K.A. Smith names these greater and lesser habits “thick” and “thin” practices.
“There seems to be an important difference between the goal of learning to type automatically and the goal of being the sort of person who forgives ‘automatically.’ There’s a difference between automatic habits that enable one to drive a car and automatic habits that make one dispositionally nonviolent. Brushing one’s teeth may be an automated activity, but it seems significantly different from being compassionate automatically.”5
Remember, habits have the capacity to create love. Whether it’s a craving for tingling gums, a head of shampoo suds6, or a craving for justice, habits can create these desires. But when these habits are “thick” and touch our ultimate desires/loves then these habits can be effectively described as liturgies. “Liturgies are the most loaded forms of ritual practice because they are after nothing less than our hearts. They want to determine what we love ultimately … Our ultimate love is what defines us, what makes us the kind of people we are. In short, it is what we worship.”7 In other words, these practices are quite literally teaching us what to worship. And because this sort of automation happens through “frequent and constant pairing”, often without our knowledge, we could very well be learning to worship things other than the God of heaven without even knowing it.
Take the mall for example.8 It has its own liturgies with its own recognition of “sin” and promise of redemption. This liturgy creates a love of “stuff” which promises me freedom from my own mediocre life and redemption from social ineptitude. The following is an exegesis of the Story within the liturgy of the Mall.
1. I’m broken, therefore I shop.9 The mall has its own version of sin and brokenness. In the Message of the Mall my brokenness is not ethical but material, physical, and social. I am faced with all of the “stuff” that makes families in the ads so happy and at the same time tells me that I don’t have that same stuff. Each mannequin and photoshopped portrait I pass convicts me of my failure to measure up to media standards. And the happy smiles surrounding the man/woman with the new shoes remind me that I am not surrounded by those same smiles. And each one of these while condemning also offers redemption. If only I bought the stuff I could be happy. If only I were as skinny I could be pretty. If only I had the shoes I could be popular. “As such, the liturgies of the market and mall convey a stealthy intuition about my own brokenness (and hence a veritable need for redemption), but in a way that plays off the power of shame and embarrassment.”10
2. I shop with others.11 We could just as well say “I shop against others.” The social relationship fostered by the liturgies of the Mall is not one of mutual respect and communion but one of subjective comparison and competition. Just as the Mall trains us to compare ourselves to the standards of mannequins and paintshopped models, it also trains us to see other people that way. We learn to assess others in a blink to recognize whether they measure up to the ideals of the Mall. We also learn to “keep score” in our competition with others. When we measure our opponents against the Perfect Example (incarnated in mannequins and photoshopped ads) we also measure ourselves against them. We either thrill at the victory of having won this battle (“I have the newest shoes and hers are so last year”) or we feel embarrassed once again at failing to be all that we feel we should be (“That guy is so ripped. I really should put more time in at the gym.”).
3. I shop (and shop and shop), therefore I am.12 The Gospel according to the Mall is one of redemption. The feeling of brokenness and insufficiency in us is paired with the promise of redemption held out by the hands of perfect plastic models. And we buy it. But the startling realization settles in all too quickly–we still do not look like they do. We still do not have the life they promised. We return from the mall to our same old routine. The hips we had going to the Mall are the same hips we have when we come home from the Mall and no new pair of jeans is going to change that (though we still believe they should). We still have to wash our hair, deal with acne, do our homework, and wash the dishes. The thrill of the purchase begins to fade and that new outfit we were sure would make us the belle of the ball is now dated and needs to be replaced. And there’s the rub. Replacement. Disposability. This is the Story latent in the liturgy of the Mall. “What the mall valorizes as sacred today will be profaned as ‘so five minutes ago’ tomorrow. Hence comes the irony that consumerism, which we often denounce as ‘materialism,’ is quite happy to reduce things to nothingness. What makes such serial acquisition consumptive is just this treatment of things as disposable.”13 The liturgies of the Mall train us to discard. Things are replaceable. We get rid of the old when it no longer pleases us and we trade it in for the new and updated. We learn to crave the novel. Our love is being pointed in the wrong direction. We no longer treasure things as sacred but dispose of them as profane.
4. Don’t ask, don’t tell.14 The liturgy of the Mall also trains us to ignore the dirty under belly of the consumer world. We rarely stop to ask ourselves, “Where did this stuff come from? And why is it so cheap?” We would much rather picture The Good Life as it is presented to us in the advertisements than to picture the oppression that our American Dream creates. We do not want to see those who work long hours just to make ends meet, and all that just so we can bring home a new (and cheap) t-shirt that we will discard in a matter of months.
“What the liturgy of the mall trains us to desire as the good life and ‘the American Way’ requires such massive consumption of natural resources and cheap (exploitive) labor that there is no possible way for this way of life to be universalized … The liturgy of consumption births in us a desire for a way of life that is destructive to creation itself; moreover, it births in us a desire for a way of life that we can’t feasibly extend to others, creating a system of privilege and exploitation. In short, the only way for this vision of this kingdom to be a reality is if we keep it to ourselves … Don’t ask; don’t tell; just consume.”15
This brief exegesis by James K.A. Smith of the liturgy of the Mall is just one example of the different visions of The Good Life which are latent in all sorts of activities in which we engage. We are thrown into these secular liturgies throughout our lives. The “frequent and constant pairing” of these “internal responses with external events” both create love and direct love whether we are aware of it or not. And when these liturgies touch us so near to our hearts they are training us to worship. But, because they are not aiming our hearts at the God in whose image we are made, they are actually de-humanizing us. For that reason we must beware. Not only that, we need something which will counter the de-formation of our hearts. (This is the place of Christian worship and will be the topic of the next two articles). We need a liturgy which will present to us the True Story of the World. We need a liturgy which will aim our hearts at the Kingdom of God. We need worship which will remind us of what it means to be human. We need worship which will help to make us human. That’s what we need. We need to be human, because we were born to be.
©M. Benfield 2016
1. John A. Bargh and Tanya L. Chartrand, “The Unbearable Automaticity of Being,” American Psychologist 54, (1999), 462-79, as quoted in James K.A. Smith, Desiring the Kingdom, (Grand Rapids: BakerAcademic, 2009), 80.↩
2. Charlges Duhigg, The Power of Habit, Random House Trade Paperback Edition (New York: Random House, 2014), 3-30.↩
3. Ibid, 31-59.↩
4. James K.A. Smith, Desiring the Kingdom, 83.↩
5. Ibid, 82.↩
6. Duhigg, The Power of Habit, 56-59.↩
7. Smith,Desiring the Kingdom,87.↩
8. Chapter 3 of Smith’s Desiring the Kingdom is dedicated to “Cultural Exegesis of ‘Secular’ Liturgies.” Included in his analysis are liturgies of the mall, the stadium, and the university, 89-129.↩
9. Ibid, 96-97.↩
10. Ibid, 97.↩
11. Ibid, 97-99.↩
12. Ibid, 99-100.↩
13. Ibid, 100.↩
14. Ibid, 101-103.↩
15. Ibid, 101.↩