The Habit-Breaker

It is easy to get out of the habit of writing for a blog. Let it go for a while and you start to wonder what all the old urgency was about, much as you may wonder how you used to get so het up over an old girlfriend. Time is amnestic, and the first thing you forget is why you did all those things you used to do. You remember that you used to do them, but because you have forgotten why, those memories will be colored by remorse, puzzlement or chagrin.

I find that the desire to write a post is at its highest just after I push the button that says Publish on a post. I am at that moment on fire with scribbler’s madness, and would at once resume scribbling if I were not constrained by the need to earn a living and maintain some semblance of sociability. The heat of scribbler’s madness lasts about a week, so weekly posts suffice to keep the fever alive, but when Life stands between my keyboard and me, the fever begins to burn itself out.

And Life has been standing between my keyboard and me these past few weeks. Standing there with his arms crossed, his biceps bulging, and a very forbidding lower in his eye. A few weeks ago I hurt myself rather badly while woodworking, and my injury had the usual effect of putting a dent in my espièglerie as well as my nose. In my weakened condition, I then fell victim to some vulgar variant of the cold or flu, and my illness had the usual effect of infusing my soul with apathy. And no sooner had the gloom of injury and illness begun to lift, than the university dismissed its students and told us professors to move all of our classes to an on-line format.

So, as I said, Life laid down a ban on idle keyboard tapping, and as time passed I began to wonder what all that idle keyboard tapping was about.

This suggest the one comment I have to make on the epidemic, which is that its greatest effect may be as a habit-breaker. I suspect, for instance, that some non-trivial number of people will not resume the habit of going to church. Time is amnestic and the first memory it removes is the memory of motive. These apostates will certainly remember that they used to go to church, but they will be at a loss to remember why.

This occurred to me as I attended (although that isn’t really the word) a regular weekly meeting by way of Zoom videoconferencing technology yesterday. The absurdity of the meeting was highlighted by the new context, and the question why such a meeting should occur at all had, at least in my mind, moved to the head of the agenda. I find something similar when I record classes in an on-line format. Writing out and recording these explanations and descriptions makes me seriously wonder why anyone should be subjected to these explanations and descriptions. When I pronounced them in the classroom, their pronouncement seemed normal and good. After all, I had been pronouncing them in classrooms for years. But in this new context their pronouncement seemed more than a little ludicrous.

But I predict that the epidemic will be a habit-breaker primarily because time is amnestic and weeks of social distancing will cause us to forget why we used to be sociable in many the ways that we used to be sociable.   We are all discovering that there are friends and functions that we do not miss, and that there was something more than a little ludicrous in at least some of our old routines.

20 thoughts on “The Habit-Breaker

  1. In my humble estimation, we’re in dire need of a few good “habit-breakers” these days. I thank you for the insight, sir. I’m going to add “habit-breaking” to my list of ‘silver linings’ that have so far come from this scare.

    • BTW, for anyone interested, so far I have, on my list of ‘silver linings,’ the closing of the public schools and the empty parking lots (and therefore the empty seats inside) at the Indian ‘gaming casinos’ in my state I see when I drive by them. ‘Social distancing’ at its finest, in my view!

      • I think the education racket is terrified by the idea that people might get out of the habit of going through the motions of appearing to learn. Sitting through a class is a habit it is easy to lose. I fear gaming is a habit it will be harder to break, which is why our intelligent forbears outlawed it as a vice. As the good book says, a dog will return to its vomit.

  2. What do you think is the overlap between those who, up to now, put a fair bit of money in the collection plate and those who will be breaking the habit of weekly attendance? I think it will be significant. I suppose we’ll find out soon enough – small parishes local to me reported 50-70% drops (I suppose the remainder was mailed or donated online), we can see how much they recover on the other side.

    • I don’t know, but I wouldn’t assume that all the dropouts will have been formerly marginal members. I’m not suggesting loss of faith, either. Only loss of the habit of churchgoing. My parish is obviously worried about the offering plate, since they have been sending parishioners links to a website where we can make on-line donations. I find it pretty off-putting, but it shows an accurate knowledge of the human heart. The first time you don’t put money in the plate is the first time you question why you ever put money in the plate.

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  4. In an area unmolested by a hurricane for many years, the forests grow thick with weak or dead trees. Then when, as occasionally happens, a hurricane blows through, the forest is cleaned of trees which were unable to withstand it. The resultant forest is healthier from the ground up, so the next generation of trees can grow that much stronger. Those trees which steadfastly remain are strengthened, too.
    When Christ used the parable of the mustard seed in gravel, thorns, and fertile soil, he knew that a seed can grow in each case. But occasionally a strong wind blows and the plant is tested. (May those seeds shaken loose land upon fertile soil!) A seed grows best when firmly rooted and unobstructed.
    Coronavirus is doing what demographics was already going to do to the Church. A foreshock of things to come. A mild spring thunderstorm with hurricane season looming in the summertime. Some habits will be broken because they don’t know why they were there in the first place. Some habits will be strengthened, for absence certainly makes the heart grow fonder. Is it better for the pews to be filled with the supposed 75% polled who don’t believe in the real presence? Or is it better for the church to be small, but strong in faith? While I don’t presume to have the answer (though I certainly have an opinion), it seems to me many arboreal church officials are missing the forest for the trees.

    • Your analogy of a forest full of dotards may prove true, but I doubt tenacity in the habit of churchgoing is strongly tied to faith. In fact, we may find that it is precisely the people of faith who discover that they do not miss going to church. It will be the sociable people–they ones who are shaking hands as they go up to receive the eucharist–who will miss going to church.

      Friday seminars are a ritual in most graduate departments. Usually a professor flies in from another department and gives a research talk. This is followed by a discussion, and then everyone goes out for drinks. When I got older, the going out for drinks was less appealing, and when I got older still, I began to attend only the research talks I was interested in. This broke a habit of nearly thirty years in which I had attended the Friday seminar automatically. Once the habit was broken, I became more critical of the research talks I did attend, and they did not fare well. It was not long before the whole ritual of the Friday seminar looked to me like a huge waste of time, and reading in my office looked like a much better way to spend a Friday afternoon.

      • I see your reasoning but its hard for me to accept a distinction between faithfulness and church-going. Mass is an essential part, indeed it is a Sunday obligation for a reason. The people who understand the sacramental nature would necessarily remain churchgoers regardless. Those who think of it (as I once did) as a social gathering punctuated by standing, kneeling, singing, and eating: they will either miss it and return with enthusiasm hoping to see their friends again, or they will become more discerning in their social obligations and meet with a few of their closer friends at the Brunch joint down the street. Mimosas probably taste better than Port on a Sunday morning anyway.

      • I’m not trying to drag you (or anyone) down to my present level of cynicism, but I do put considerable weight on Christ saying that things are to be judged by their fruit. I accept sacramental doctrine, but believe all sacramental claims must be put to the test of fruitfulness.

      • Meetings in general look to me like the most massive first order change to social habits that we might expect in cultural reaction to the Chinese Flu. Almost all of them are a famous waste of time. Everyone feels that way about them. We may now hope that henceforth their convenors will devote a bit more consideration to the question whether they ought to be held at all.

  5. Welcome back, JM.

    You wrote: “I think the education racket is terrified by the idea that people might get out of the habit of going through the motions of appearing to learn. Sitting through a class is a habit it is easy to lose.”

    I would not be surprised if marginal, out-of-the-way campuses in the large state systems, now shut down and the kids sent home, never reopened. The states, which will be financially strained by our current crisis, will see them as liabilities rather than as assets, and they will want to consolidate the system and lay claim to the regional endowments. I would guess that tuition-paying parents, seeing their kids sitting in front of their screens in order “to attend class,” will want to ditch the habit of paying a fortune every semester for an “education” whose paltriness they can now see for themselves. This will hit “higher education” (which, as you write, is a “racket”) really hard.

    • They should have sent all the students home, but when they returned in the fall semester demanded that they write an essay describing how they used their free time. Those who studied would be readmitted as real students. Those who worked would told to go forth and prosper. Those who partied would handed a bottle of vodka and shown the door.

      • I wish the administration would hand me a bottle of vodka! (Sobieski is my preference, for reasons not entirely connected with its name.)

  6. Kristor @ Let’s hope this happens. But there are millions of meeting-loving time-wasters who are learning how to use Zoom videoconferencing, and if they have their way, you will in future be expected to attend meetings while soaking in the bathtub or dozing in a hammock.

  7. Home office installs all the wrong habits. If one was already too addicted to checking Twitter on the phone, now we can do it on the big screen while working as the boss is not lurking behind our backs…

    How many people can keep up their exercise routines at home, without seeing all the other people in the gym doing it as an inspiration?

    • I find it harder to keep my nose to the grindstone at home, but then I also find it harder t leave the grindstone alone. I prefer working in my office because it keeps work and leisure apart.

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