New Paths Through the Dirt

Most of us have patterns in our lives, things that we do day after day almost without thinking. We hit the snooze…twice, we pick up our phones to check for messages, get out of bed, turn on the shower, check our messages, start the coffee, check our messages, test the water to see if it’s hot enough, wash up, dry off, check our messages, get dressed, eat breakfast and check our messages one more time. And most likely we do most of this in the same order every day.

We turn right or left out of our building to go to work or come to class without even thinking. We drive to work the same way every day and we arrive wondering how we made it when we remember nothing about the drive we’ve just taken. We are by nature a patterned people and our brains prefer it that way. In fact, the less our brains have to interact with us the more they like it. They are simply not interested in things that upset the routine because things that upset the routine require energy, and our brains prefer efficiency, so they try to think as much as possible without us.

Which is alright when the patterns are on the right track but pretty scary when the patterns haven’t found a healthy groove. It’s troubling because our brains don’t care so much about healthy or unhealthy, they care about consistency and they like a rut in the road and so an unhealthy pattern is just as likely to remain a part of our life as a healthy pattern

Unless, that is, something like Ash Wednesday causes us to stop in our well-worn tracks and take a moment to look at the rut in our road and acknowledge the patterns our life have left in the dirt. But so often we ignore the invitation to stop and take a look and assess where we are headed. I think we don’t feel the urgency of assessment, because we think our sin doesn’t really matter. We don’t defend our bad patterns as good it’s just we believe they’re fairly harmless in the whole scheme of things. 

Right now at University Ministries, the staff is reading a book entitled Spiritual Formation in Emerging Adulthood—not an exciting a title, but a good read. In the book they identify that emerging adults—those between the age of 18 and their late twenties—tend to think that their current indulgences will have little impact on their future faithfulness, which is why they continue to indulge with plans to be pious later.

I personally don’t think this tendency stops in our late 20s but is a deception that continues to deceive us through the length of our lives. It’s not that we want to throw away our faith, that we don’t believe in Jesus, or that we aren’t planning to get back to the routines of faith someday. It’s just that we want to get some of these things “worked out of our system” before we do.

The problem is, according to the author, that when we are participating in any behavior we are not working it out of our system rather we are working it into our system. Jeffery Satinover, a medical doctor, affirms this.

He says, that a moral lapse is not just momentary failure with only momentary repercussions, but a groove that is created in our neural pathway that facilitates repetition. A groove that your brain may now decide to travel down without much thought at all.

“Over time,” Satinover notes, “the choices we make fall into ever more predictable patterns because the pattern of choices tends to be self-reinforcing. As we practice certain behaviors, they become easier and easier, and we become ‘better and better’ at them.” In essence, we get in the groove, or at least our brain does. And the author says that these patterns that we set are not like an Etch-A-Sketch that we can just shake and erase: “Each drawing leaves a trace that becomes more evident and more permanent over time.” (Spiritual Formation in Emerging Adulthood, Setran and Kiesling, p. 42)

Like a well-traveled path that began as a simple foot trail, but that is now carved deep into our dust…

Which is okay when the patterns are on the right track but troubling when the patterns haven’t found a healthy groove. Troubling because our brains don’t care so much about healthy or unhealthy, they care about consistency and they like a rut in the road and so an unhealthy pattern is just as likely to remain a part of our lives as a healthy pattern…

Unless, that is, something like Ash Wednesday causes us to stop in our well-worn tracks and take a moment to look at the rut in our road and acknowledge the patterns our life have left in the dirt.

-Pastor Judy