Friday, June 25, 2004

Trish #19

When I arrived at the hospital yesterday, I asked Trish what she had done earlier.

"I learned to get out of a chair and to sit down in it again," she said.

Trish is busy this week learning to walk, eat and otherwise care for herself.

Trish is relearning behaviors that most of us perform many times a day without conscious thought. It turns out that these behaviors are far from simple. I have been watching as her therapists teach her the serious business of walking. She very slowly rises out of her wheelchair (with the help of two strong men, named, I kid you not, David and Obed!) She carefully ponders about what to do next.

"Grab the bars of this walkway," the therapist says. "Bring your right foot forward. Now, shift all your weight to the right side. Good. Now put your left foot forward. Shift all your weight to that left side. Great. Now lets do the same thing again with the right side."

Habits are deep structures of complicated behavior. What we observe on the surface as a person walks, is the tip of a mental and physical ice berg. The brain and muscle coordination, the constant feedback from the environment that assesses things like uneven surfaces, the constant balancing of the body -- these are enormously complicated things. The reason we do them so effortlessly is that human beings are capable of learning complicated things by arranging them into a series of steps that become physical and mental programs. Once we have molded complicated behavior into a program, the program nearly disappears into the deepest parts of our mental life. After that, we need only to consciously initiate the first step of the program. Once it springs into action it is usually off and running without much conscious thought on our part. That's the way we are made.

The brain trauma Trish suffered erased many of these programs for Trish. She has to relearn them.

(Trish would probably insist that I point out here that addictions operate the same way. I would argue with her that addiction is not the subject of this e-mail but finally I would get exasperated and put in a sentence about addiction. We are such creatures of habit!)

For a long time now, we have been trying to believe that spiritual life differs from natural life. We have tended to glorify the spontaneous, the unpremeditated, the non-habitual acts of devotion and service. We have tended to sneer at the rehearsed, the prepared and the habitual acts of spiritual life. We have known that past generations of Christians set hours of prayer, practiced daily devotions and Bible readings, honored rhythms of spiritual seasons and, of course, maintained a once a week observance of a day of worship and rest. Our ancestors knew dozens of verses to hymns that they sang so often that the words and melodies got pushed deep inside their minds and spirits. We know that their spiritual life was formed and maintained by habit but we have been taught for a couple of generations that we are different from them in that way. We have been taught that we don't need all of that habitual structure.

Is that true?

Most of us know first hand that habitual patterns of spiritual life can be turned into very boring and lifeless rituals. What person raised in church can't recall some prayer meeting that felt like a root canal? That's why, for a couple of generations, we have been turning away from any hint of the habitual or contrived in our spiritual lives. But can spiritual life really exist without habits? Where does spiritual spontaneity come from is there is no spiritual foundation?

This time next year, Trish may see an old friend and jump from her chair in a spontaneous burst of joy. She will run to her friend, shouting while throwing her arms open to embrace her. But Trish will only be able to do that next year if today she maintains enough patience to slowly relearn a complicated series of behaviors. "Right foot forward, shift your weight to that foot, stand a moments. Now the left foot, etc." If she practices walking today, does it again tomorrow, repeats it the next day and the day after that; if she keeps on with this until walking once again becomes a habit, that is to say until the complicated parts of walking get reduced to a program that operates at the deepest parts of her mental life, then spontaneity and fun will once again become a possibility for her. If she gives up on practice before the practice becomes a habit, she will never again experience the joy of spontaneously running to greet an old friend.

Speaking of spontaneity --

We usually love it. However, there are kinds of spontaneity that adults don't really want. For example, my granddaughters are totally spontaneous. When they need to use the bathroom, they do so. Wherever they are and whatever the environment may be around them, they are not ashamed to just let it fly! They do not premeditate.They do not plan or prepare. They just abandon themselves to the moment and experience the sweet release of their pent-up frustrations. They do what they feel. They do it with great joy. (That is, joy for them!) Adults do not get joy from that kind of spontaneity. Adults learn to structure their needs and plan for their fulfillment. (Sometimes they overstructure their needs but that is another subject.)

When adult spontaneity brings delight it is because the spontaneity springs from seasoned, habitual and mature behaviors. A man may suddenly decide to make pancakes at midnight because some old friends have showed up. They all start talking about the pancakes that he used to make at college and suddenly, on impulse, he blurts out, "well, lets have some right now!" However, as he gathers the ingredients and begins to prepare to make the pancakes, he draws upon deep habitual structures that were placed there long ago. Those old programs spring into action so he can keep talking to his old college friends while he almost thoughtlessly creates a wonderful spontaneous experience. That is the nature of adult spontaneity.

I can't imagine that spiritual life works any differently.

Well, my brave and persistent wife is laughing her way through learning the simplest of things. Just a month ago, she could do those things while she thought about other, apparently more important things. Today, once again, she will practice: "right foot forward, shift the weight, That's right. Now the left. Do it again. Good job. Tomorrow we'll do this again."

And now, if you will excuse me, it is time for my morning Bible reading and prayer. After that, I am going to work out. I don't feel like doing either of them today but perhaps if I will just get started ...

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