The Quick Fix

I’ve been thinking a bit about distinction between legitimately helpful habits and “quick fix” habits. Fro John (referencing someone, I can’t remember who) talks sometimes about how when we have a problem but can’t or won’t deal with the actual problem, then we often come up with another distraction, which might in itself be neutral, but is not a good idea, because it’s simply covering up the original issue; and then if the distraction itself becomes a problem, then we have to come up with another distraction to cover up that problematic distraction, and so on. You’re unhappy at home and have unresolved issues with your family, so you work too much as a distraction, which eventually makes you more unhappy, so you drink, which eventually makes you even more unhappy, and so on until you eventually deal with whatever the actual issue was. Those distractions would, I think, be “quick fix” habits.

I think that the difference between those sorts of habits and normal, necessary ones, is that the latter aren’t trying to distract people from deeper underlying issues. Someone with a healthy tooth-brushing habits does not compulsively brush her teeth every time they feel sad, though I don’t know that someone couldn’t develop that habit as part of a neurosis. Someone with healthy eating habits won’t eat a pound of chocolate ice cream because she’s stressed out by her irresponsible boyfriend. Or whatever. The “quick fix” mentality is to recognize the ice cream problem, without recognizing the boyfriend problem, which might lead to doing something else until it’s nearly as unhealthy — to replace ice cream with running, and then to compulsively run and run as though she’s trying to run away from all the stresses in life, instead of sometimes facing them and making meaningful choices.

R mentioned the difference between feeling convicted and going to church to make friends at church, vs feeling convicted and going to church in order to better deal with the things one is feeling convicted about, which seems reasonable. We fallen humans have an extraordinary capacity for distraction, being capable even of distracting ourselves from actual repentance by doing a bunch of pseudo-repentant prostrations, instead of, for instance, actually admitting and stopping whatever it is one is supposed to repent of. It might be easier to do a hundred prostrations a day than to realize that I can’t hang out with my current friends much anymore because we want very different things — because the prostrations aren’t relationally painful, and the latter is. It might be easier to stand in church for three hours than to negotiate a better work situation, because the latter might require asking uncomfortable questions and upsetting the status quo. If you’re the sort of person who hates conflict, anyway — other people would doubtless imagine different scenarios.

Whether Duhigg’s description of how habits work seems too simplistic or not probably depends on whether the habits that come most readily to mind are in some way neurotic and caused by some other underlying issue, whether personal of chemical, or whether they are simply  ordinary habits that have been poorly and thoughtlessly ordered through one’s day. If I want to go on a 30 minute walk every day simply because it’s a good and enjoyable thing to do (or because I need to exercise, unwind, enjoy nature, or whatever), then Duhigg’s explanation is very good, I think. It would be worth developing a habit of finding some point in the day that could always act as a cue for me to get dressed, shod, and out the door before I have a chance to sit down in front of the TV and lose momentum. It would be different, perhaps, if I were watching TV at that time every day for complex psychological reasons, rather than because it’s simply and habitually the path of least resistance. If my excuse is about comfort (I’m cold), then it’s reasonable that the solution, and therefore my seasonal habit when it’s cold or rainy, be a compromise with comfort (go to the heated indoor track). Then a habit would develop that whenever it’s cold or windy I would automatically go to that track, instead of being confused and giving up.

The difficulty, I suppose, is that those things Duhigg calls “infliction points” — you’re sore, the gym is closed, you’re too tired or cranky, etc might start out as one kind of thing (physical or emotional), and then attract other kinds of psychological issues as well, which have been hovering in the background, sort of waiting for an opportunity to force growth. You stop going to church for legitimate reasons (you don’t know where a church is or what time services are, for instance), and then for illegitimate reasons (like those listed here, for instance), and before you know it, it’s not even really about temperature or language or social dynamics or personal space anymore, but about the question of what it means to pray at all — are you even praying if you stand inside a church for a few hours thinking about how uncomfortable you are? And if not, can you find a way to actually pray? And if so, why is it better — necessary? — to be in the church building at all, or at the same time as everyone else? And suddenly it’s not a question about comfort at all, but about what it means to belong to and participate in a local church at all — and then what it means to be a member of the Church, or a Christian, or a human being. And then, even if it’s warmer and you’ve made a few friends and understand a few words, it’s too late. You have to go follow your questions anyway. And at that point retreating to the coziest, closest, smallest, nicest Christian community you can would probably be a “quick fix” because it’s dealing with your questions by avoiding rather than addressing them.

To take an example that is not about my own lenten woes, I have sometimes heard pastors say that when we pray the same thing all the time, it can eventually be difficult to focus on what we mean (which is true), and then suggest that the solution is to “shake things up” by changing what we pray, which I see as a “quick fix,” preventing an opportunity for growth. Assuming that the prayer really was deep and important to begin with, of course.

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