How Then Shall I Live? (Part 3)

 

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.

How Then Shall I Live? (Part 2)

 

We have determined that our love is what points us in the direction that our life is taking.  We also noticed (in our previous article) that the direction of our lives is mostly lived by habit.  The thing we need to know now is that habits are not simply things that we do.  Habits do something to us.  Habits can actually create love.

Recall the habit-loop explained in the previous article which consists of cue, routine, and reward.  We now add another thing to that loop, the very thing which drives the loop: love.  Charles Duhigg calls it “craving.”1

In order to explain craving he introduces us to Julio, one of the monkeys that was used in experiments by Wulfram Schultz and his team in the 1980s.2 When Julio saw shapes appear on a monitor he was to pull a lever. When the lever was pulled at the right time a drop of blackberry juice descended a tube from which Julio could drink. Once Julio learned that juice would appear at the conclusion of this routine his passing interest in the monitor became a fixation. He learned that shapes on the monitor (cue) signaled a routine (touch the lever) which brought about a reward (blackberry juice). Each time he drank the juice brain scans indicated that the pleasure centers of his brain lit up. He was happy. The most amazing thing, however, is what developed later. As the habit became more ingrained in Julio the shapes on the monitor became a cue for more than the routine. Now the shapes were a cue to the pleasure centers of his brain. He began to experience happiness before the blackberry juice arrived. The shapes on the monitor trigger a kind of pleasure anticipation. That is what we call “craving.” Or, to put it another way, “love.” However, cravings only appear when the reward is desirable enough or when the habit is practiced long enough. Other monkeys, whose habits were not yet settled, could be distracted from the monitor by the promise of other food or play time with friends. But once a craving had set in the distractions were ineffective. The results are telling. “The anticipation and sense of craving was so overwhelming that the monkeys stayed glued to their screens, the same way a gambler will play slots long after he’s lost his winnings. This explains why habits are so powerful: They create neurological cravings.”3 Habits can actually create love!

We have suggested all along that we are what we love. It is love that drives us. Science agrees. “[A] cue and a reward, on their own, aren’t enough for a new habit to last … The cue, in addition to triggering a routine, must also trigger a craving for the reward to come.”4 In the end it is desire that drives the loop. “[C]raving is an essential part of the formula for creating new habits.”5 This settled love predisposes us to certain actions. Before the cues even arrive we are sitting, waiting for them. Just like the monkeys in front of the monitor. Once the cue arrives we cannot not follow our routine. For manic texters the “ding” or “buzz” of a new text pulls them towards their phones. For social media addicts the red numbers notifying the user of comments, likes, and loves cannot be ignored. This craving is the reason why participants in 12-Step programs sometimes describe their addiction in language which sounds much like demon possession.  They describe the power of the habit-loop over them as feeling “possessed” by some sort of “force” which they cannot explain. They are “pushed” to perform and “the presence” within them will not take no for an answer. This is how habits work.  It creates craving/love and love runs our lives. We are what we love.

Conclusions
1. Habits can actually create love. Therefore our habits are not just things that we do, they are things that do something to us. If we want to love the right things then we must beware of the habits we are forming because, in fact, those habits are also forming us. And we may not like what they make us.

2. Some loves are stronger than others. Before the craving for juice had developed in the monkeys the desire for other food or the desire for play time trumped the desire for juice. In these cases the love for the former was stronger than the latter and therefore over powered it. The strongest love wins. It is what directs our lives.

3. Loves can be strengthened. Although the desire for food/play time was at one point strong enough to trump the love for juice, some monkeys reached a tipping point. Eventually the love for juice grew and became stronger than the love for food/friends. Once this happened the love for food/friends, though it had not diminished in the slightest, was now weaker than the love of juice because the latter had grown. Now it was that love which directed its life. It remained in its seat awaiting his cue and ignored food and friends.

4. We become what we worship. We all love a great many things. But whenever those things clash it is the thing we love most which wins out. And when we begin to speak about that which we love most, our “ultimate love” we are now in the language of worship. To say “We are what we love most” is just another way of saying, “We are what we worship”, and this has the witness of scripture to support it. “Their idols are silver and gold, the work of human hands. They have mouths, but do not speak; eyes, but do not see. They have ears, but do not hear; noses, but do not smell. They have hands, but do not feel; feed, but do not walk; they make no sounds in their throats. Those who make them are like them; so are all who trust in them” (Ps. 115:4-8). Now we may not “make” idols by forming them of gold and silver but we make idols none the less. “Greed … is idolatry” (Col. 3:5) because it makes an idol of whatever it is for which we are greedy. We love it most therefore it takes on the status of a god. We still make idols and we still become like them. We are we what love, that is, we are what we worship.

Because we are what we worship, and because we are made in the image of God, then worshipping God is the most human thing we can do. That is why loving God is the first and greatest commandment. It is what it means to be simply human. So join me in being human. Because you were born to.


1. Charles Duhigg, The Power of Habit, (New York: Random House, 2014), 47.
2. Ibid, 43-52.
3. Ibid, 47.
4. Ibid, 51.
5. Ibid, 55.

How Then Shall I Live? (Part 1)

This article begins to bring together all of the ideas of previous articles.  We discussed how that we are embodied creatures.  This means that most often our minds do not run the show.  It is our non-cognitive affective part that guides our lives.  It is not perspective but passion, not conviction but concern, not our belief but our bodies that determine who we are.  We are not what we believe.  We are what we love.

We learned that we are teleological beings.  All of our loves are aimed at something.  We cannot merely love.  We always love something.  That something is a particular vision of The Good Life.  It is the social vision that we all work towards.  It is our own little kingdom.  We are desiring beings and we desire a kingdom.

Then we took a look at what the kingdom of God looks like by examining Revelation 21/22 (our “end”).  We also discussed what sort of person is aimed at that vision of the kingdom by defining what it means to be made in the image of God (our “beginning”).  Only a person who imitates God’s creative goodness, love, and justice is “aimed” at the New Jerusalem.  This leaves us with the question that will occupy this and upcoming articles: “How then shall I live?”  In other words, “How do I become that person?”

Aristotle offers insight in this regard.  First, he recognizes that education is not just about the right beliefs but about pleasures and pains, likes and dislikes.  In essence, he suggests that education is a bodily education of our loves.

“Thus ethical virtue is concerned with pleasures and pains; for we do what is bad for the sake of pleasure, and we abstain from doing what is noble because of pain.  In view of this, we should be brought up from our early youth in such a way as to enjoy and be pained by the things we should, as Plato says, for this is the right education.”1

Further, he views virtue from the beginning and from the end (as we did in previous articles).

“It should be noted that every virtue (a) makes that of which it is the virtue be well disposed and (b) makes it perform its function well; e.g., the virtue of an eye both makes the eye a good eye [its “beginning”] and makes it perform its function well [its “end”], for it is by virtue of the eye that we see well.  Similarly, the virtue of a horse makes (a) the horse a good horse [its “beginning”] and also (b) good at running and carrying its rider and facing the enemy [its “end].  So if such is the case in every instance, the virtue of a man, too, would be the habit from which he becomes good and performs his function well.”2

If we want to know how to be good (our “beginning”) and how to live into the vision of God’s kingdom (our “end) then we find ourselves firmly within the realm of habits.  For to be good and to live towards the right vision is to be virtuous, and virtue is a habit.  The following articles, therefore, will examine habits: #1 How we form habits. #2 How habits form us.  #3 and #4 How we may form bad habits without knowing.  #5 How we can be sure to develop habits which direct our love towards the kingdom of God.

Science has helped us to learn more about habits, how they are formed, and the “power” that they have to move our lives.  In recognition of this Charles Duhigg titled his New York Times Best Seller The Power of Habit.3 Duhigg describes what he calls “the habit loop” which consists of a cue, a routine, and a reward. To establish this he cites one study performed by MIT researchers in the 1990s.4 A rat was placed inside of a T-shaped maze. The rat was placed in the tunnel of the ‘T’ behind a partition. When a “click” sounded (the cue) the partition was raised. The rat then traveled slowly and cautiously down the tunnel at the end of which he was forced to turn either to the left where chocolate waited, or to the right which was a dead-end. When he successfully navigated the maze (the routine) he found the chocolate (the reward).  By sensors inserted into the rats’ brains the scientists were able to observe the brain activity of the rats as they repeatedly performed this exercise.  The results are important for our understanding of habits.  The first time each rat ran the maze the brain was wide awake.  The brain remained highly active in order to take in all of the new details.  Its high-alert status helped it to look out for potential dangers.  When it found the chocolate there was another spike in brain activity.  As the rat repeated the process he ran the maze faster and faster.  He knew the routine.  Run the tunnel, turn left, eat chocolate.  It no longer meandered or sniffed walls and corners.  It went straight for the goal with expert efficiency.  The amazing thing is what happened to his brain activity.  After the exercise had become a habit his brain activity bottomed out.  While waiting behind the petition his brain was still very active.  But the moment the cue sounded his body went into auto-pilot.  His brain knew the pattern so that it no longer had to exert itself.  Its decision making centers went quiet, even the memory went quiet!  The maze was not “remembered”, it was merely run.  The rat quite literally ran the maze without thinking.  Once he arrived at the chocolate the routine was completed and the habit-loop was closed.  His brain woke up again.

Each part of the habit-loop is important.  The cue is important because it indicates to our brain which pattern is appropriate for the scenario.  If the rat performed the same routine in response to a cat’s “meow” as it did to the “click” of the raised partition then the rat’s brain would shut down right at the time when it needed to be most alert and it would run right into the clutches of the cat.  The routine is important because thinking often impedes out actions.  Skills are performed most fluently when we do not have to think about them (e.g. typing, speaking a language, driving).  Also, when the brain is not focused on the performance of the routine it can think about other things.  This is what allows us to talk while we drive, make to-do lists while we get ready in the morning, and work through marital disputes while we take a mid-afternoon run.  Finally, the reward is important because it is what signals to the brain that the cue and routine are worth remembering.

Conclusions
1. As we have repeatedly emphasized, we are not primarily thinking-things or even believing-things.  We are desiring-things or loving-things.  What drives us is a bodily wanting not a cognitive believing.  Most of what we do is out of habit and a habit by definition is done without thinking.  This goes for our good habits as well as our bad habits.  This is why when we are insulted (that’s our cue) we often shift to a pattern of retaliation (routine) in order to gain revenge or equilibrium or some sense of “justice” (reward).  And after it’s all over, when we are apologizing for our insults and anger we say, “I’m sorry.  I wasn’t thinking.  I don’t know what got into me.”  It’s also the reason people like myself sometimes say things that make no sense.  On a number of occasions when the waitress has brought my food at a restaurant and said, “Enjoy your meal” I responded by saying, “You too.”  Even though the waitress has no meal to enjoy I have trained myself to respond to well-wishing (cue) with a benediction of my own (routine) in order to be polite (reward).  These good habits of well-wishing and good manners are just as reflexive and automatic as bad habits of anger and retaliation.

2. Because habits are performed without thinking then the answer to bad habits is not to change our thinking.  Chances are we already think rightly about bad habits.  It is our right thinking that labels bad habits as bad.  The problem is not in our thinking/belief.  The problem is in our bodies’ learned responses.  Therefore, in order to become the people we are intended to be we need a sort of education that targets the body instead of the mind.  This will be addressed in future articles.

For now the most important thing is that we realize how large a part the body plays in who we are as human beings.  The education of the body is the education of our habits.  This is why we are encouraged to give our bodies over to God.  “Present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God” (Rom. 12:1).  This is what it means to be simply human.  So join me in giving our bodies over to God.  Because you were born to.

 


1. Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, trans. H.G. Apostle (Grinnell, IO: Peripatetic Press, 1984), B.1104b.10.
2. Ibid, B.1106a.15-25, brackets mine
3. Charles Duhigg, The Power of Habit, Random House Trade Paperback Edition (New York: Random House, 2014).
4. Ibid, 12-21.