Our unexamined habits in everyday life can be hell. To repeatedly perform activities without ever considering their possible unintended consequences can drain the fabric of everyday life of its enormous spiritual potentiality and can lead us down the road to perdition.
Through our mundane habitual actions, we might be contributing to the evils of the world, but because we have never truly reflected upon those actions, we have no awareness that we are doing anything wrong, or even slightly contributing to the world’s social problems.
A significant share of the world’s evil is not done through the intentional malice of wicked and nasty people. Rather, perfectly nice people, who often mean to do no harm and who are just doing what they normally do, can be inadvertently contributing to unjust systems of oppression.
Consider the nice real estate agent who, out of habit, exclusively shows homes to young black couples in the parts of town she thinks they might “feel most comfortable.” While having no racist intent, the real estate agent engages in “institutional racism” and promotes the residential segregation of that city.
With each action we make the world. With each action we potentially make the world better or worse. Our ordinary behaviors in the realm of everyday life count, for it is through these actions that we ongoingly constitute the social world.
While we can “reproduce” the structure of society by doing what we have previously done so many times before, there is no guarantee that we will. The possibility of change is inherent in every single act. People are always able to act differently that they do.
Even the most banal and mundane of habits may conceivably make the world somewhat worse. We roll out of bed and make ourselves a cup of coffee — a seemingly trivial event. Yet, when we consider the nature and quality of our beans, for example, things become more significant.
Are those shade-grown, organic fair-trade beans? Considering that Americans spend $4 billion a year importing coffee, the nature of our consumption patterns makes huge differences in the world’s economy and ecological sustainability. Through our purchase of one brand versus another we could reduce threats to the environment and human health, and contribute to a more just global economy.
So, why do we need to examine and reflect upon the nature of our habitual actions?
» First, as stated above, we need to discern if there are unintended consequences to our actions. While we might not have any goal of bringing harm to the world, unbeknownst to us, our actions might have that outcome. As the above example illustrates, while we may have simply wanted to get a morning jolt, we might have ended up contributing to the unsustainability of our planet.
» Second, unexamined habits reproduce the status quo. By this I mean that by doing what we have done numerous times before, things stay exactly the same as they have always been. All theories of social change evoke notions of “reproduction” that point out the conservative nature of custom and tradition. When we mindlessly repeat past actions, we remake the world just as it already is and pass over the opportunity to change course and change the world.
» Third, through our unreflective behavior we continue to lack an understanding of our complicity in the state of the world. We end up denying any responsibility for things because we have not fully considered how, in perhaps seemingly small and trivial ways, our repeated patterns of behavior contribute to the way things are.
» Fourth, unexamined habits are typically done on “autopilot,” in which we are not fully cognitively “present” with what we are doing. This does not have to be necessarily bad. Consider how we might be mindlessly making a pot of coffee while we are sharing an intimate conversation with someone we cherish.
Surely, our mind’s focus on what that person is saying is in itself valuable. Yet, whole spiritual traditions devote enormous energy into teaching us the value of mindfulness. Consider the famous discourse on “being present” while washing the dishes by that great Vietnamese Buddhist teacher, Thich Nich Hahn.
Finally, through unexamined habits we remained closed to learning from our prior actions. Progressive Brazilian educator Paolo Friere emphasizes that a most significant form of learning comes from our deep reflections upon our past actions.
Of course, there are definitely “good habits.” We sneeze into our arms and avoid sending germs out into the world. We come to a halt when we approach a stop sign and look both ways before crossing the street. Yet, even these routine actions are worth mulling over in our minds to see if they enhance the common good and the welfare of humanity. And these innocuous rituals can be performed with a full consciousness of what we are doing.
To not examine our mundane behaviors is what Alfred Schutz calls the “natural attitude.” We think “things just are the way that they are.” Or, “everyone does this.” By taking the natural attitude we fail to acknowledge that the state of the social world is re-created through the mundane actions of ordinary people in everyday life. Sociologists might say that through the natural attitude we objectify social structure.
Modern society is marked by what critical scholar Erica Sherover-Marcuse calls a “mystified consciousness.” This mystified consciousness encompasses “modes of being, ways of acting and experiencing oneself and one’s existence to which people have become accustomed, attached and even ‘addicted’ on an affective level.”
The routine nature of habits can feel good. They often generate feelings of security and comfort because we already know their predictable outcomes. To step out on a limb and try something new can be unnerving. It might provoke feelings of anxiety and even fear.
Unexamined habits are at the heart of what I call the cynical cycle of mindless inaction:
» 1) We are closed to knowing about injustices.
» 2) We are numb to all the suffering of the world that exists all around us.
» 3) We don’t think that we can make any difference.
» 4) We stop wanting to do anything.
» 5) We mindlessly do what we have done before.
When we turn off the autopilot of everyday existence, take time to deeply reflect on the ethics of our actions, we break out of that cycle. We can become optimistic about our ability to change the world through the concrete ways in which we live our lives.
I leave you with a call to take some simple action that you perform everyday day, and quietly, even prayerfully, reflect upon it for some time. Examine that act to see if there are unintended consequences, and whether the act lives up to your cherished ideals. Remain open to altering your course of action, and know that through simple acts like this we can change the world.
— Wayne Mellinger, Ph.D., is a social justice activist living in Santa Barbara and social worker for the homeless. He is on the board of Clergy and Laity United for Economic Justice (CLUE).