Picture this scenario, which hopefully none of you has experienced during the wintery weather of the last few days. You’re at home watching a good movie you’ve never seen before. Just over halfway through, as you’ve become thoroughly engaged in the film, the power goes out. You look out the window and see your neighbors’ power is out as well. You call RGE to complain and you’re told that engineers have been dispatched. It’s dark in the house, so you stumble about, using the glow from your mobile phone display to guide you. The flashlight it turns out needs new batteries which you can’t locate, but you find the candles and matches. Soon, your home is lit by a soft glow. You’re irritated and feeling a bit out of sorts, because you were totally engaged in the film.
After a few minutes, you get up and make your way to the bathroom. You walk in, and your hand goes to the light switch and flips it on. You stand there, confused, wondering why the lights haven’t come on. Then, you snort at your own silliness and stupidity. Not only have you looked out of the window to check that the power outage covers the area, but you’ve phoned RGE, you’ve found the flashlight and candles, but here you are: still trying to the turn on the light. There’s worse yet to come, however, because two hours later, still waiting for the power to be restored, you go into the bathroom again. Your hand reaches up and flips the switch again, and again you stand there dumbstruck, wondering what could possibly have been going through your mind. The answer, evidently, is: absolutely nothing.
Jeremy Dean, in his book Making Habits, Breaking Habits: Why we do things, Why we don’t, and how to make any change stick, describes this scenario to illustrate how much of our behavior is governed by habits, habits that are so ingrained that we’re unaware of them. The book caught my attention this week because of my annual attempt to come up with some New Year’s resolutions that might make my life a bit better, and I hoped it would contain some good advice on how I might get control of my compulsive checking of eMail and Facebook, get back into the swing of regularly exercising, eat a little better. Jeremy Dean is a psychologist who helps people break bad habits and create new ones, and his book is both depressing and helpful.
First, the depressing part. As the power outage scenario illustrates, much of our behavior is governed by habits that are so ingrained that we’re really unaware of them. In some ways, this is good news: if we had to think about every action of the day, think about turning on light switches, for instance, or exactly what drawer the knife is in and where the peanut butter is when we want to make a sandwich, or how to turn the key in the car ignition or signal that we’re going to make a left turn, we would literally be overwhelmed by all the mundane activities of our day. The autopilot function of habits helps us navigate our lives and have some spare brain power for higher functioning.
The bad news about habits, however, is that they are very, very hard to break, and very, very hard to create. You’ve probably heard the idea that a new habit can be created in 21 days. So, if you just go to the gym, everyday, for 21 days, you’ve created a habit that will stick with you. Jeremy Dean refutes this false idea in his book, recounting study after scientific study that shows created new habits takes on average 66 days. The 21 day idea is popular for self-help books because it seems manageable, but in reality, it doesn’t work that way. Breaking habits is equally difficult, because they function on a sub-conscious level. Something happens, a trigger, and we respond the way we have been programmed, without any thought or consideration.
Dean does have some hopeful news, however. He offers some practical exercises to help create new habits. The first exercise is called WOOP, standing for “Wish,” “Outcome,” “Obstacle,” and “Plan.” First, you write down your Wish, the habit you want to achieve, say exercising regularly or checking email or Facebook less often. Then, write down the best Outcome of the new habit, such as feeling better, or being less distracted and more productive. Next, write down the Obstacle or Obstacles you are likely to face, like not wanting to get out of bed to go to the gym on a cold morning or how easy it is to get online. Finally, make a specific type of Plan, called an implementation intention. This is critical, Dean writes, because if you simply resolve to get fitter or be kinder to your spouse without specific behaviors and specific situations you are much less likely to succeed. Dean advises coming up with specific “If...then...” plans. For instance, “If I’m about the check Facebook, I will stand up and go get a glass of water instead,” or “If, I feel myself becoming annoyed with my spouse, then I will think of something nice to say to them.” Starting with small and easily manageable “If...then...” plans creates a good chance of success, and a base that can be built on as you continue to work on created good new habits. And it is better if the your plans involve action, rather simply not doing something. For example, “If I feel hungry, then I will eat an apple,” is more likely to work then “If I feel hungry, then I will remember that chocolate is not good for me.”
Jeremy Dean’s book is full of exercises like this, but I want to pass along just two more. Breaking bad habits usually requires us to become more aware of what we’re doing and why. Jeremy Dean recommends carefully examining and even meditating on our bad habits in an effort to discover exactly what our triggers are and what the rewards are, the triggers and rewards that are often subconscious. Finally, Dean suggests that exploring the context of our bad habits, where we are when we do them, who we’re with, what we’re thinking, etc. Our environment can cue up our habits in ways we’re are completely unaware of, and in fact, in ways which work against our goals and intentions. He relates an experiment led by social psychologist John Bargh. Participants were split into two groups and little rick was played on them. They were asked to unscramble five words and make a four-word sentence (discarding one of the words and re-ordering the remaining four). For example, they were given things like: “he it hides finds instantly.” It dosn’t take too much imagination to discard the word “hides” and come up with “He finds it instantly.” For half the participants the sentences were just to keep them busy, but for the other half there was a secret message. The sentences had lots of words which stereotypically are associated with old people; here are few: “old, lonely, grey, selfishly, careful, sentimental, wise, stubborn, courteous.” Apologies to folks who are more mature, but this test is designed to elicit stereotypes, so it has to be crude. After they finished the test and thought the study was over, that’s when when it really got going. Researchers timed how long it took each participate to walk the 9.75 meters from the table they’d been sitting to the door. Those who were fed the old-related words took on average a full second longer to cover the distance than those who hadn’t had the stereotype activated. What had happened in people’s minds was that they were reminded about the idea of being old, and their subconscious caused them to move slower, regardless of their actual age or physical ability. In this case, age was all in the participants head, and it had been put their without them being aware of it. Our context, our environment, the people and places and things around us shape our lives and our habits in subtle but important ways.
As I studied our gospel reading for this morning, this very very familiar Epiphany story, I found myself wondering how the three kings were shaped by their contexts and by their habits and how their were changed by their encounters. Except of course they aren’t really kings: the hymn we’ll sing in a few minutes calls them kings, but Matthew says they are magi, which is usually translated as magician or sorcerer. Matthew also doesn’t say there are three of them; the number of magi comes from tradition. Matthew doesn’t say where they are from or what their names are (the poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow gave them the names Melchior, Gaspar, and Balthasar). I imagine they had their lives pretty well figured out. One has a little shop where he sells herbs and potions for various ailments, or to make your neighbor fall in love with you, or to just help you sleep through the night. Another travels here and there, setting up a tent and charging fifty cents to tell your fortune by reading the lines on your palm. Another spends his mornings teaching undergraduates ancient languages and his afternoons in the university library studying fragments of old parchments, trying to get a sense of what life was like long, long ago. He sometimes stays late into the evening, telling his complaining wife that he needs to finish writing this book so he can get tenure. They can pay their bills, support their families, even put a little aside for retirement. But at the end of the day, after the kids are in bed and it’s time to blow out the oil lamps, none of them can quite shake the feeling that something is missing, that there has to be more to this life than the daily routine. This feeling keeps them up at night, and they sit on the front porch, looking up into the sky, trying to dream up a new life, trying to figure out where they’ve gone wrong.
And then one night, they, each of them in their own city, see a star, a new star that wasn’t there the night before. And such an odd sort of star: it seems to be beckoning them, calling out to them. And when they shake their heads and tell themselves that they’re crazy, it actually seems to get even brighter. They finally force themselves to go to bed, and they get up and have breakfast go to work. But the following night the star is there again. This time it moves a bit to the west, and then comes back, winking at them. The magi think they’re going crazy, but by the third and fourth nights, they’re sure they aren’t imagining it. They ask their neighbors, who all scoff at them saying, “No, of course we didn’t see a star - we were in bed sleeping like normal people.” After about a week, the shopkeeper decides to put a sign up in his window letting people know that he’s “Gone fishing” and he’ll be back in a few weeks. The fortuneteller sells his tent and with the money he gets, he buy a mule. The teacher decides it’s time for a sabbatical. I don’t know what they tell their wives and children as they pack up, but I can’t imagine they were fun conversations. They set out west across the desert, each traveling at night so they could follow the strange star. Eventually they meet up, and it takes awhile for them to admit to each other that they are following a star for reasons they can’t quite understand, but once they do, the journey becomes a lot more fun. They talk about what the star could mean, where it could be leading them. After awhile, one of them suggests that the star must be announcing the birth of someone pretty important, and just as he says it, the star bounces up and down in the sky, almost seeming to nod in agreement, so that is that.
Finally the star leads them to Jerusalem. They walk around the city asking everyone “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews?” Most people pretend not to hear them. Some laugh out loud; one looks at them with pity and presses coins into their palms. One day, they ask an important looking man, a priest with a long beard and flowing robes. When he hears their question, he looks at them sharply and says, “There’s no child who has been born king of the Jews! Herod is the king of the Jews!” They keep walking around the city, but the priest goes immediately to the palace and tells Herod about the odd encounter. Herod doesn’t like the idea of another king one little bit: he has trouble enough keeping the peace as it is. In spite of what the priest told the magi, Herod really isn’t a king. He’s called King, but he works for the Romans. As long as he keeps the peace, the Romans mostly leave him alone, but it’s not an easy task. The people hate the Roman soldiers, they hate paying the Roman taxes, they hate money and statues with Caesar’s face on it with the sacrilegious inscription, “Caesar Augustus, the son of God.” They frankly hate Herod as much as the Romans, and Herod is constantly trying to squelch various insurrections and rebellions before they come to the Romans’ attention. The last thing Herod needs is to have the people all excited about a new king, and worse, a king they might think is the legendary Messiah who will restore Israel’s former glory and chase the Romans out. And so, Herod devises a plan. If he sends his soldiers out looking for a baby king, everyone will think there really is one. Instead, he sends the magi on to find this baby, if it even exists. Most people will think the magi are crackpots and pay no attention to them. Then the magi can tell Herod where the baby is, and he can figure out what to do next.
The star leads the magi on to Bethlehem and hovers over a simple house. The magi are confused. They expected another palace, or at least a large, fancy house, but this is barely better than a stable, although there isn’t straw on the ground, and no animals, and there’s an actual crib for the baby. The magi introduce themselves to Mary and Joseph. They sheepishly give them the gifts they’d bought in Jerusalem, gifts for a king, but they can see now that, really, diapers and baby formula would have been a better idea. Mary is gracious, and offers to let them hold the baby, but they don’t feel quite comfortable with that. They chat awkwardly for a few minutes, and then they say their goodbyes and leave.
They probably should go back to Herod, they say to one another. It’s what they had planned to do, and they can’t see any reason not to. This baby is hardly a threat to Herod. The magi have begun to realize that the baby may be a king, but not a Herod sort king. But they have these dreams, each of them, weird dreams that seem to be saying don’t go tell Herod, and over breakfast the next morning they agree that they won’t. And then they go back to their homes by another way.
Maybe that’s the end of the story, but I doubt it. The magi have had an encounter with something they don’t quite understand, but it has changed them. I suspect they go back to their homes, and after a lot of talking things over with their wives, they settle back into their routines, but they make some changes. The shopkeeper stops selling those love potions which he knows don’t work. The fortuneteller decides to stop telling fortunes and starts counseling people on how to communicate better with their spouse. The teacher spends a little less time in the library in the afternoon, and stops on the way home to pick up flowers for his wife. They all spend a little less time staring up into the night sky wondering where they went wrong, and a bit more time being grateful for all that they have.
The magi’s encounter with the star and with Jesus breaks them out of their everyday routine, out of their everyday, mindless, unexamined habits. May this feast of the Epiphany remind us that although we are governed by our habits, they don’t have to have the last word. We can listen to where God is calling us, listen for how God is calling us to live. May this Epiphany and this new year provide us new opportunities to create new, life-giving habits. We might start small, with those simple If...then plans. If I’m feeling frustrated or depressed, then I will sit quietly for a few minutes and listen for God. If I find myself getting cranky with my spouse, then I will reflect on their good qualities for a bit. If something catches my eye, maybe an opportunity to be of use to someone else, then I will do my best to help out. May God, manifest in Jesus, bless us in this new year, and make us a blessing to others. Amen.