Our habits shape a lot of our behavior, and it is hard to break bad habits and establish good ones. In You Are What You Love, James K.A. Smith explains why it is so hard to simply think our way to new ways of living.
Smith argues that the end to which we are oriented (and we are all oriented toward some vision of “the good life”) is not primarily something we think about, but what we desire — we are motivated by a vision of flourishing that we crave at a visceral level. This is our vision of what will deliver happiness, of what society should look like, and how the world ought to be. So Descartes was wrong in the end: We are not defined simply by what we think — in many ways, we are what we love.
There are competing visions of the good life. We may think that we wish to seek God and live as kind, virtuous, loving people, but we may very well be worshiping what many Christians call false idols and others call false paths to happiness. Often we follow these hollow desires unconsciously, but we can see them reflected in our daily habits and in our environment.
To be the person we wish to be, therefore, we need to be aware of our unconscious desires and the cultural practices (Smith calls them cultural liturgies) that may be shaping them.
One set of cultural practices he highlights are those that foster the widespread consumerism in our society. He describes how malls tap into our desires, whether for friendship, joy, and play — or beauty, power, and privilege. The mall provides a vision of what happiness, pleasure, and fulfillment look like. What we see at the mall seeps into our vision of the world and what it ought to be. Malls teach us to compete with other people and to objectify ourselves and others.
Ultimately, malls teach us that “salvation” — from the insecurities or emptiness we feel inside after seeing these images of happiness and success — can be found by buying the products and services that are being sold there. Smith explains that we are not taught and persuaded to embrace consumerism through clever arguments, but instead are formed by the rituals we experience at the mall and the habits they form.
If we wish to break away from the insecurities, materialism, and emptiness of consumerism and our throwaway culture, we therefore must think about our daily rituals and habits so that we can reorient our hearts toward the end we truly value.
This transformation cannot occur in isolation. If we wish to live a life animated by love, to live in communion with God and others, our relationships and communal spaces will play a big role in establishing these habits and reorienting our hearts. They will shape our imaginations and unconscious thinking.
As a father, I instantly thought of our home and wondered whether what we say is matched by the habits our home fosters. I try to teach my kids to be loving, virtuous people, but are they truly being formed in this way? Do our daily practices inculcate the habits and underlying vision of what it means to flourish?
We try. For instance, we pray at dinner each night in gratitude and also for those who are hungry. We try to do so in a way that shows this is not pro forma but sincere and meaningful — that it is at the core of who we are and wish to be.
Practice and imitation, Smith explains, are crucial in forming these habits. The old adage is true (as every parent knows): actions speak louder than words. If we want to inculcate values — especially values that are not reinforced by consumer capitalism — we need to bring a lot of thoughtfulness and intentionality to the project.
As a teacher, I have learned the same lesson: students are more apt to do as I do, rather than just what I say. They like to tease me for the corny stickers on my computer: choose joy, keep it real, you are loved, be kind, and AMDG (an acronym for “the greater glory of God”). And occasionally, I have explained why I actually believe that stuff. But I know the real work is in showing them what it looks like to live authentically, virtuously, and joyfully on a daily basis. No one learns joy from a miserable person or authenticity from an insincere person because of a sticker or a couple comments. They need to see it on a regular basis and why it is worth living that way.
As I did with my own family, I also thought about what daily habits the students develop at our school, what vision of the good life we are fostering as a community, and how we can better connect those to the school’s mission to form people who will build the Kingdom of God, live joyful lives, and truly flourish. There is always more that can be done.
Recognizing the impact of these practices and the ways rival “cultural liturgies” can undermine our efforts to form ourselves, children, students, or others highlights the value of stepping back on a regular basis and examining our habits and what forges them. Then we might be able to take concrete steps to shape our daily lives and communities to help us love the things that are truly worth loving.