Monday, January 05, 2015

No, really: what is church for?

The interesting thing about this story is not that it lays to rest the myth of my childhood, that heroin addiction is both immediate and unbreakable, but that it explains something else:

Outsourcing control over your behavior sounds a little funny. But consider what happens when you perform a very basic everyday behavior like getting into a car.

"Of course on one level, that seems like the simplest task possible," Neal says, "but if you break it down, there's really a myriad set of complex actions that are performed in sequence to do that."

You use a certain motion to put your key in the lock. And then physically manipulate your body to get into the seat. There is another set of motions to insert the key in the ignition.

"All of this is actually very complicated and someone who had never driven a car before would have no ability to do that, but it becomes second nature to us," Neal points out. "[It's] so automatic that we can do it while we are conducting complex other tasks, like having conversations."

Throughout the process, you haven't thought for a second about what you are doing, you are just responding to the different parts of the car in the sequence you've learned. "And very much of our day goes off in this way," Wood says. "About 45 percent of what people do every day is in the same environment and is repeated."

In this way, Neal says, our environments come to unconsciously direct our behavior.
This is one of the reasons people regularly attend church; or go on spiritual retreats; or pilgrimages; or enter convents or monasteries.

Environment influences our behavior.

I'm not inclined to say it "directs" our behavior; I'm not enough of a behaviorist to go that far (although I agree with Auden's assessment of behaviorism: yes, he said, it works; but then, so does torture.)  But environment clearly influences behavior, otherwise we wouldn't worry about what schoolchildren wear at school, or how quiet and passive they are supposed to be (or energetic and engaged, depending) in the classroom.  And pilgrims would not go on pilgrimages, nor would people enter a church once a week, or even go further in their devotion and retreat into a monastery like Abbey Gethsemane.*

The modern tendency is is decry behavior we won't approve of as "ritual," meaning it is form without shape and gesture without motion.  But what is more ritualistic than getting into your car to drive to work, or the grocery store, or to a movie?  Complicated actions which are second nature to us.  I moved my car this morning in the driveway, and the actions were as automatic as my fingers typing this out right now (though thankfully I make fewer errors in driving than I do in typing).  Typing and driving are not strictly rituals, but they are complex actions we learn to do because the environment requires, or at least encourages, them.  I need to get to my job; I need to get to the grocery store; I just need to get out of the house and away from my neighborhood.  Even the actions of driving to work or the store are almost automatic; if I don't think about it, when I need to go somewhere I don't ordinarily go I'll turn the wrong direction, automatically steering toward the most familiar destinations.

And that, in part, is what church is for; is what worship is for:  an environment that directs our actions in directions we don't go in daily life.  If you want your actions truly guided, you retreat into a monastery like the Trappist monks, with an environment that encourages and enhances the approach to God.  But if you want your actions directed at all, you need an environment which encourages that direction; it is, after all, better that you at least repeat the actions, than that you don't do them at all.

*Which really makes sense in terms other information in the article, where it was established that some 95% of the Vietnam soldiers who became heroin addicts in Vietnam and then were treated before returning home, broke their addiction.  This is attributed to the radical change of environment from war in Vietnam to civilian life in America.  Monasteries and convents provide an equally radical change of environment, especially a cloistered one like Abbey Gethsemane.

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