Posted on September 7, 2011


I recently read an article that detailed – in layman’s terms – the psychological factors involved in breaking bad habits. In it the author described classical and operant conditioning and the affect of ‘extinction bursts’ on our ability (or lack of ability) to break out of bad habits.

He described having the toilet flushed when you’re in the shower to explain classical conditioning:

“Something neutral – the toilet flushing – becomes charged with meaning and expectation. You have no control over it. You recoil from the water without ever thinking, “I should recoil from this water else I get scalded.”

…and then some other everyday things to describe operational conditioning:

“Operant conditioning changes your desires. Your inclinations become greater through reinforcement, or diminish through punishment.

You go to work, you get paid.”

In the above example, you could even say, “You work harder, you get paid more.” But this would be denying the complicated nature of the labor v. capitalism relationship and the social / environmental / political / economic climate that helps to shape that equation. This is naive. We don’t need to be too naive right now.

Survival Mode

If you’ve worked in America over the last several years (or even received a reportable earnings of any amount) then your net income, the money left over from your gross income after paying for the necessities of life, has most likely gone down… but so has your income tax liability.

What went up? Food prices, gas prices, credit card and homeowners’ debt, workloads, childcare, college tuition… That’s not really the environment any of us were expecting to find ourselves in. Most Americans are living paycheck to paycheck… to credit card to loan to hand-to-mouth to paycheck. Most American businesses are as well. We’ve come to expect this to maintain our growth… instead this philosophy has resulted in a global social / environmental / political / economic disaster.

So what is the ‘extinction burst’ that I mentioned? According to David McRaney:

“If you were to keep going to work and not get paid, eventually you would stop. This is when the extinction burst happens, right as the behavior is breathing its final breath.

You wouldn’t just not go to work anymore. You would probably storm into the boss’s office and demand an explanation.”

I think that the current political climate is reflective of these extinction bursts. Politicians aren’t just making promises any more, they are attacking each other with campaign money… and doing it more stylishly I might add. And it’s not just politicians anymore, it’s all sectors of our economy scrambling to be the next ‘one,’ the next big thing, the next great idea, the next g-darn pat on the back that might make you think you may possibly one day get a raise again or at least not get fired… You would think we all worked on Wall Street. There’s a barbaric and dangerous impulse to fend for ourselves in whatever way possible.

War, uprisings, protests, growing world hunger and food shortages are all mirrored by our comparatively robust American economy. I’m not saying all the bad stuff that happens in the world is Americas fault, but we can no longer deny that we are a part of a global community and the need to start thinking that way should be reflected in our higher ideals and maintained as an integral part of our goals as a world leader.

How do we usher in a new era of growth and sustainability? So how do we break our bad habits?

The Human Element

It is worth noting that the further we remove ourselves from the human element of this equation the more damage it seems like we are doing… to the human element.

De-personalizing the debt crisis, we remove the understanding that if millions of people are now relying more and more on government services than ever before that it might be because they actually need it. Characterizing and villianizing the people involved dehumanizes them and therefore clouds the awareness of the moral risks involved.

Defunding the programs that support our public (without including well-thought out and tested plans to solve the resulting increased need the action creates) is short sighted and lacking in moral integrity. It is playing risk with people’s lives that are already at risk. It is preying on the poor. Are we a predatory nation?

Wearing Habits

Allowing the debasement of our higher ideals, we invite isolation and inhibit growth. Inhibiting growth in a growing world is about as good as going backwards… and we can’t afford to go backwards anymore. It is getting harder and harder, it seems now, to remove and repair the unwanted affects of the encroaching community on our isolated world-view. We need to break our bad habits and learn how to sustain new ones. We need new habits.

Even if you’re the most humble person on earth, you still have to look out for yourself and your family, don’t you? Why do you think Mother Teresa was such an anomaly? In sacrificing her personal desires, she characterized our higher ideals.

In 2008, an essay in Tikkun Magazine called Sacred Doubt by Rabbi Irwin Kula detailed his impression of a book – Mother Teresa: Come Be My Light (Doubleday, 2007) – revealing confessional letters written by Mother Teresa that expressed deep despair and doubts about her faith. They were both insightful and distressing to the religious community. Mother Teresa and the life she lived were suddenly humanized and therefore more profound. How could a woman sacrifice so much for the poor and suffering in the name of her religion while for fifty years feeling no connection to God?

Rabbi Kula’s conclusion:

“In these days, when certainty not only undermines our search for the truth and our capacity to love but threatens us with destruction, perhaps what we need is the type of doubt Mother Teresa felt—sacred doubt—that births humility and compassion that paradoxically proves faith more than any creed or dogma.”

In order to move beyond our limited potential, we must have vision and faith in that vision. It doesn’t need to religious or even concrete, but it needs to exist nonetheless. It is why governments and institutions have leaders: to condense our combined knowledge and perspectives, faith and doubts, into variables that can carry out a plans that further the goals of the community(ies) involved.

Realizing the harsh consequences of our actions is a start. Recognizing that we are a diverse, global community that, without question, affects one another is step two. The next step is to revise our priorities and goals, raise our sites to higher ideals, and figure out how to sustain.

If we care about the inviolability of human life then we should intend on creating the growth that we ultimately need for long term, civilized survival. We will need smart management, sharp intellects, and good planning. It seems a tall order.

If America is still leading the charge… what are we doing with it? Can we persevere? Do we have faith?