Rosh HaShanah Morning 5774 – The Power of Habit

On May 10 of this year, The New York Times reported that the average daily level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere had climbed above 400 parts per million.

For three million years, our planet had an average of 280 parts per million of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere.  Carbon is found everywhere, and is the core of our planet’s living systems.  Carbon is found in the life and death of plants, animals, and microbes, is stored in sediment at the bottom of the ocean, is dissolved in our oceans, seas, rivers, and streams, and circulates in our atmosphere.  The stability of the carbon cycle has kept our planet at a very stable temperature for the last 8000 years, and has allowed the flourishing of a species we call humanity.[1]

But for the last two to three centuries, human activity has disturbed this precious balance.  With industrialization, we began to dig up and burn tons of fossilized carbon.  As our appetite for fossil fuel grew, and as technologies abounded that burned more and more carbon, we have altered the carbon cycle so that there is more and more carbon in our atmosphere.  The higher levels of carbon trap heat in our atmosphere, rather than allowing it to bleed out into space. This is causing an increase in the average temperature of our planet.  The rise in temperature is causing significant melting of arctic ice, which changes the way in which our planet reflects light back into space.  More white ice – more reflection and less heat.  Dark ocean holds light energy, rather than reflecting it back into space, so less ice and more ocean creates more heat, which melts more ice, creating more ocean, absorbing more heat.  The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a body of several hundred scientists from around the world, will report in September that there is a greater than 95 percent certitude that human factors contributing to the break in the carbon cycle have likely already locked us in to a global increase in temperature of at least two degrees celsius, and probably more.[2]

The vast majority of climate scientists agree that to avoid the significant and dangerous repercussions of a 2◦C rise in global temperatures, rich nations like the United States would need, by 2020, to reduce carbon emissions to a level 25-40 percent lower than levels were back in 1990.  Dr. Ben Strauss, who earned his Ph.D. in ecology and evolutionary biology from Princeton, asserts that with no change in our current levels of carbon output, middle of the road assessments point to an increase in sea-level of four feet within 100 years, which would essentially put the entirety of Miami Beach under water.[3]

So what are we doing about it?  Nothing.  Practically nothing.  We are on a course that the overwhelming consensus of scientists worldwide agree will drastically change our experience of life on earth, creating climate realities humanity has not known since before the creation of the wheel.     And yet despite the fact that we have known about this impending disaster for nearly twenty years, we are simply doing nothing.  Nothing.

Why is it that we all have such a tendency to do what we know is clearly not in our own best interest?  Why is it that even when we know rationally that we’re not on a healthy course, or that we’re making clearly self-destructive choices, nevertheless we refuse to change.

I’m guilty.  Every year, for more years than I care to count, I make myself a New Year’s resolution at the High Holy Days.  “This year,” I annually declare, “this year is the year I am going to get in shape!”  Every year, I promise myself that I am going to get myself into the gym and work out regularly.  I’m going to start running, swimming, biking, and exercising.

And guess what.  I haven’t.  Oh, I exercise a little.  I try to walk for exercise, I play soccer on many Sundays, and occasionally go for a run.  But none of it’s consistent.  And with the addition of Charlie the Wonderdog to the Levin family, even my walks are no longer the exercise they once were as my little dog stops to mark every tree, shrub, and lamp-post in our neighborhood.

I have made other resolutions I haven’t kept either.  I promised I wouldn’t turn on the TV in the bedroom and instead read more books, have more meaningful conversations with my wife, or God-forbid, go to sleep earlier.  I promised I wouldn’t constantly nag my family about the messy state of our house.  And yet, here I am, one year later, and I have a lot of repenting to do.

So why won’t we change?  Why won’t we break the bad habits we know are so unhealthy for us?  From the outside, we look like we’ve lost our minds.  For example, we have absolute and incontrovertible scientific evidence that cigarette smoking will dramatically increase our risk for lung-cancer, emphysema, heart-disease and a whole host of other terrible health problems.  And yet everywhere we go, we see extremely intelligent, highly educated people, whose extremely intelligent heads are masked in a cloud of cigarette smoke they just exhaled from their highly educated lungs.

The fact is that habits are hard to break. Our patterns of life are ingrained deeply into our brains and our psyches, and it’s very difficult for us to break out of those patterns.

For many years, I have worked with individuals who are suffering from addiction – addiction to drugs or alcohol or gambling.  And the stories they tell are remarkably similar.  Each suffered from a spiritual pain brought on by trauma, loneliness, a sense of emptiness or difficulty in understanding life’s purpose or meaning.  And to avoid those feelings, to escape the pain, they chose to medicate themselves with the numbness of alcohol, the euphoria of drugs, the excitement of gambling.  And soon use and abuse became habits, habits that led to all kinds of self-destructive outcomes – broken relationships, job loss, impoverishment, legal woes, physical illness.  And yet, it isn’t until something drastic happens that people will do what’s necessary to break those habits – and sometimes, those habits are so strong they literally kill us.

William James, the famous 19th century philosopher and psychologist wrote in 1892 that “all our life, so far as it has definite form, is but a mass of habits.”[4] Charles Duhigg, in his book The Power of Habit teaches us that habits are made up of a cycle of three basic elements: cue, routine, and reward.

Let’s take a basic habit for example.  Like many of you, I have become dependent on my smartphone.  Throughout the day, our  phones give a little chirp or buzz, telling us we have a new text message.  That’s our cue.  We also learn that when we respond to that cue, and open the message, we get a nice feeling inside – someone cared enough to send us a text.  It might have a little bit of news or gossip or greeting, maybe even a cute or funny picture.  It’s fun to open a text.  So we learn that if we respond to the cue and open the text, we get a reward, that nice little feeling of having someone reach out and touch us.

This creates a habit pattern – buzz -> read text -> nice feeling.  And that habit can be overwhelming.  We’re sitting at an important meeting, our phones give a little buzz, and automatically, our phones are under the table while we read the text.  We pretend that we’re still focused on the meeting, but how many of us have missed an important thought because we were not fully present?  Or worse.  We’re driving in our cars, and we hear that cue, and even though we know we shouldn’t text while driving, our habit patterns create a mighty temptation to read that text once we hear that magic chime.  Hey, let’s be honest.  How many of you in our congregation are texting right now?!?

It’s very difficult to break our habits.  They become ingrained in the depths of our being.  In some ways, they define who we are.  And sometimes, if we’re not careful, habits lead us to incredibly self-destructive behaviors.

There are many reasons we have such difficulty changing our habit patterns.  It’s painful and it’s difficult and it’s scary.  As Clive Hamilton writes, “When climate scientists conclude that, even with optimistic assumptions about how quickly emissions can be cut, the world is expected to warm by 4◦C this century it is too much to bear. Who can believe that within the lifetime of a child born today the planet will be hotter than at any time for 15 million years? When scientists say we will cross tipping points leading to chaotic weather for centuries, we retreat to incredulity.”[5]

When thinking about climate change some will say the science isn’t settled, that there are differences of opinion among climate scientists.  Some even go so far as to say that there is a conspiracy by climate scientists to fashion a pre-determined outcome.  We so desperately don’t want to believe what we’re told, many deny the basic science.  This was true of many changes in scientific understandings of what we once thought was true.

In Weimar Germany in the 1920s, Einstein’s theory of relativity attracted fierce controversy.  Einstein was an internationalist and a pacifist, and those who opposed him saw his theory of relativity as yet another sign of moral and intellectual decay.  Einstein was accused of being un-German, and a decade later, Nobel laureate physicist Philipp Lenard sought to root out “Jewish physics” from the academy in Germany.  Fellow physicist Ernst Gehrcke developed an elaborate account of “mass hypnosis” to explain the public’s gullibility in accepting a theory that was so manifestly untrue.

Things weren’t terribly different when it came to smoking.  Tobacco companies for years sponsored pseudo-scientific work to refute the evidence that smoking was directly linked to cancer and disease.

We do this too.  We deny our bad habits, or we minimize the impact they have on others.  We blame others for the reasons we don’t change our ways.  We engage in wishful thinking, hoping that we won’t have to suffer the consequences we know deep down our bad habits are likely to bring.

I think about all the reasons I haven’t joined a gym.  I am plagued by analysis paralysis.  What kind of gym do I want?  Which is the best one?  Isn’t that one too expensive?  I tell myself that I’m still getting some exercise, and some is better than none, right?  I excuse my behavior by telling myself I’m too busy – too much to do between my responsibilities to work and family.  And another year goes by, and nothing has changed.

We do not have to be a slave to our old habits.  We can change.  Duhigg suggests that part of the reason Alcoholics Anonymous is so successful is because it replaces the effect the drug has on our spirits with a healthy alternative.  AA helps people identify the cues and rewards that encourage alcoholic habits, and then helps the addict find new behaviors. The meetings offer companionship and a “sponsor” can offer as much escape, distraction, and catharsis as heading into a bar to spend a night drinking.[6]

But while an alcoholic can try and change, without one ingredient, we find inevitable relapse.  The missing piece, we are told, is belief.  J. Scott Tonigan, a researcher in alcoholism and drug addiction at the University of New Mexico says, “belief is critical.  You don’t have to believe in God, but you do need the capacity to believe that things will get better…  What can make a difference is believing that [you] can cope with that stress without alcohol.”[7]

Belief is what will make a difference.  Belief that our habits are self-destructive and leading us into a darkness from which we may not emerge.  Belief that we have the power to change.  Belief that change will be good and make a difference.

William James, the father of American psychology, was actually the shlepper in his family.  His father was a wealthy and prominent theologian.  His brother, Henry, was a brilliant novelist whose works are considered masterpieces.  William wanted to be a painter, but then enrolled in medical school, then left to join an expedition up the Amazon River. He couldn’t find his place in life, and began to despair to the point of contemplating suicide.  But in 1870, James made a decision.  Before doing anything, he could conduct a year-long experiment.  he would spend twelve months believing that he had control over himself and his destiny, that he had the free will to change.  “My first act of free will,” he wrote in his diary, “shall be to believe in free will.”  James would later write that the will to believe is the most important ingredient in creating belief in change.[8]

Duhigg writes that the real power of habit is that your habits are what you choose them to be.  We all have developed habits that lead to dead-ends of self-destructive behavior.  But we are not destined to go down those roads.  Each step is a choice.  And we can make different choices, if only we exercise the will-power to do so.

I used to know a woman who was a recovering alcoholic.  At each meeting, she introduced herself: “My name is … and I am a grateful recovering alcoholic.  I am so grateful I didn’t have a drink today, because I wouldn’t have just had one drink.  I would have had ten drinks, and I would likely be dead.  Thank God I didn’t have a drink today.”  After several weeks, I asked her if I could venture a personal question.  “Sure,” she said.  “Well, how long have you had your sobriety?” I asked.  “Thirty-three years,” she said.  “It’s been thirty three years of making a conscious decision every morning not to drink at breakfast, not to drink at lunch, not to drink in the afternoon, not to drink with dinner, and not to drink at bedtime.  Thirty three years – and it has made all the difference.”

We can break unhealthy habits and lead more healthy lives.  We can embrace new ideas and incorporate them in new ways of thinking.  We can develop new technologies that will lower our carbon output and increase our economic income. We can learn to drive more efficient automobiles. If we believe and commit to leading a different kind of life, we can make an enormous difference for ourselves, our families, our communities and our world.  We just need to believe in the necessity and the power of change.

Temple Beth El is beginning to do its part.  We built our Beck Family Campus with extraordinary efforts to achieve green construction and use standards.  By using efficient landscaping, lighting, and other resource management, we endeavor to keep our carbon footprint as low as possible and earned Silver LEED Certification.  We have begun efforts to institute green practices on our main campus, changing to more efficient lighting systems, instituting recycling programs and introducing sustainable and biodegradable materials.  And guided by our Social Action committees’ green initiative, we have only just begun.

In the Talmud in Pirke Avot, Rabbi Tarfon used to say: “It is not up to you complete the task, but neither are you free to desist from it.”  On this Rosh HaShanah let us believe in ourselves and in a better future we can build together.  Let us resolve to build healthy habits that will lead us toward what we know is right and good for ourselves and the world. May God bless us with the insight, the wisdom, the tenacity, and the courage, to dare what must be dared, in order that the lives we lead the choices we make will inspire future generations to copy our ways and adopt our habits.

 


[1] “Heat-Trapping Gas Passes Milestone, Raising Fears” by Justin Gillis. New York Times May 10, 2013.

[2] “Climate Panel Cites Near Certainty On Warming” by Justin Gillis. New York Times August 19, 2013.

[3] “Sea Level Rise Locking In Quickly, Cities Threatened” by Dr. Ben Strauss on ClimateCentral.org

[4] The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg. New York: Random House, 2012, p. xv.

[5] Op Cit. Hamilton “Why We Resist The Truth About Climate Change” p. 4.

[6] Op. Cit. Duhigg pp. 70-71.

[7] ibid., p. 85.

[8] ibid., pp. 271-273.

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