Creatures of habit

soccerMy friend just awakened in his hospital bed convinced that his foot had fallen off the side of the mattress. I had to remind him that his mind is playing tricks — his foot is gone; his leg was amputated yesterday.

Crushed between two truck bumpers, the bones and muscles of his right leg were terribly damaged. The surgeons tried hard to repair things but in the end, the injury was too great. They amputated his leg about 6″ above the knee.

He has had that leg his entire life and his mind refuses to let it go. Phantom pain is what it’s called. Part memory and part misunderstanding, nerve signals mislead the brain into thinking his leg is still there when it isn’t. As I moved a pillow under his stump he winced — he told me his heel was aching.

Beyond the phantom sensations, my friend has a lifelong set of habits that involve that missing leg, habits that he will have to break and rebuild. Turning over in bed will be different, sitting will be different, standing and walking will be different. All sorts of second-nature, unthinking motions will have to change now that he has only one leg.

Which got me thinking about my own habits.

I used to bite my fingernails until they bled and ached. It was a nervous habit, something I did when I was bored or worried or when I was trying to solve some difficult problem. Breaking that habit was hard because it had become so strongly associated with certain emotions; I would bite my fingernails without even realizing what I was doing.

They say that we’re all creatures of habit. We have habits of thinking, of belief, of bias and perspective, of the framework on which we construct our personal world view. In a great many ways, we think and act (and react) automatically, without much critical thought. We self-confidently step out without bothering to look down, certain that there really is a foot or leg to support us, convinced we know what is real and what isn’t.

But do we, really?

Most of us are lazy, myself included. We have answered some of life’s most complex questions by glomming on to the answers we’ve heard parroted by everyone around us.

I’m talking about questions like, does God exist, and does it make any difference in my life if he does? Does my life have meaning or purpose? Is there any universally binding moral code, or am I free to invent my own? Am I responsible to the society I live in, and if so, how? Is this life all there is?

Christianity is often criticized as a religion of blind faith that requires unquestioning adherence to an ancient dogma. Christians, especially evangelicals, are thought to be simple-minded and uninterested in the world of the mind.

That characterization comes from those who haven’t bothered to study the words of Jesus himself. He seems to have recognized that his Jewish audience had been numbed by centuries of habitualized thinking about the nature of God and their place in the world.

And so he challenged them to think. One of his favorite rhetorical devices seems to have been the phrase “What do you think?”

At such times, he was prone to suggest a very different answer from what his listeners expected. The Gospels often talk of his audience being “awed” or “amazed” at his new interpretations and fresh insights into the nature of God and the meaning of life.

Which makes me think that God does not want us to be creatures of habit when it comes to matters of faith and life’s ultimate issues. It suggests that God is not threatened by our questions. He seems to delight in the intellectually curious.

We are not meant to go through life on autopilot, driven by unexamined habits of mind. God invites us to think, to question, to examine, to challenge, and then to decide for ourselves what is true, and what is illusion.

What is real? What is illusion?

Who is this man, Jesus Christ? Is he just the Christmas and Easter guy? Is he just some Sunday School painting of a shepherd carrying a sheep on his shoulders? Is he just some dead guy hanging on a cross?

We have answers, plenty of answers, but the question we have to ask ourselves before we bet the farm is, are they real, or merely phantoms?

Photo credit: Liberia’s amputee soccer team, AP photo by Rebecca Blackwell

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  1. Excellent post, Charlie. I agree that it is a big problems that many people adhere too strongly to a particular dogma or worldview without even realizing that they are basing it on a set of unverified (and unverifiable) assumptions. Ironically, the people I find most often guilty of this are atheists. Ironic, since, as you point out, Christians are most often accused of “blind faith”.

    I know there are some Christians who just accept what they are told without questioning, but I know many who have really thought things through and come to the conclusion that Christianity provides the best, most coherent answer to life’s biggest questions. As for myself, I’ve probably given more thought to this kind of thing that is good for me, even going out of my way to read some of the atheist polemicists (e.g. Dawkins).

    The philosophical question of what is real and what is an illusion is a fascinating one that could take a life’s study all in itself. At a certain point, though, you just have to latch on to a set of beliefs and go with it. “Who is this man, Jesus Christ?” He is who he said he is: the Lord of my life and the one single figure in history who makes sense out of an otherwise nonsensical world.

  2. Thank you. Very good explanation. Is this not the reason the Bible tells us to bring up a child in the way they should go? Parents h ave the ability to mold character into their children but many fail. Everything about us is from the habits we take on as a child. The way we think, etc. Anyway, thanks.

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