The Silicon Valley Teen Suicides

The sermon below was preached by Rev. Dan Harper at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Palo Alto, California, at the 9:30 and 11:00 a.m. services. The sermon text below is a reading text; the actual sermon contained improvisation and extemporaneous remarks. Sermon copyright (c) 2015 Daniel Harper.

You may have seen the article in the December issue of The Atlantic magazines titled “The Silicon Valley Suicides.” (1) It was reasonably well-written, but no one article can convey the true complexity of life as it experienced by teenagers here in Silicon Valley. Nor will I be able to convey that complexity in this sermon. But because I am a minister here in Silicon Valley who spends a significant part of my time with teens and their parents, I thought I would offer you my own perspective on Silicon Valley teenagers.

Please note that in order to protect confidentiality, I will NOT talk about any specific individual or family in this sermon. Instead, I’m going re-tell an old, old religious story about a famous religious figure. I’m going to disguise this old, old story by giving it all the trappings of Silicon Valley today. And even though I’m going to have to stretch the details of this old, old story a little, it is a story that can help us gain some insight into what it means to grow up in Silicon Valley today.

The story begins with the birth of a boy named Sid. Sid’s parents were very influential — let’s just say that they were very high up in government — and they were also quite well-to-do. Sid’s mother decided to give birth outdoors in the garden, so her personal assistant arranged everything, and her personal medical staff attended her during the birth.

Sid’s father did not attend the birth, because he was tied up with very important meetings. It was a day or so before he had time to see his wife and the new baby.

“What a good-looking baby,” he said.

“And talented,” she said. “You’re not going to believe this, but he tried to walk almost immediately upon being born,” she said. “And….”

“And what?” he said.

“Let’s just say that we have an exceptional child on our hands,” she said. “We need to start researching preschools that can handle gifted and talented children. This boy is destined for Stanford.” This was the college Sid’s mother had attended.

“Or Harvard,” said the father, who was a proud graduate of that institution.

“But not Berkeley,” said his mother.

The baby’s father then called in various experts to assess the child, who all agreed this was an exceptional baby. The coordinating consultant delivered the final assessment: “In addition to great intelligence, this little boy has exceptional leadership potential,” she said. “I’d say he has the potential to rise to the highest ranks of world political leadership.”

“Great!” said his father. “Fabulous!” said his mother.

“Or he could wind up going into religious leadership,” said the consultant.

“Religion?” said the father. “That’s hardly practical.”

“Forget religion,” said the mother. “He needs to be totally focused on his career goals, starting now.”

Little Sid exceeded even his parents’ highest expectations. He was a total success at preschool, in elementary school, and in middle school. With no apparent effort, he got straight A pluses. When he took the SATs, he got 800s. His sports and extracurricular accomplishments were equally impressive. And the family psychiatrists carefully controlled Sid’s anxiety disorder and clinical depression with appropriate medications.

Being mindful of the predictions of the experts, his parents kept him carefully protected from religion; and from knowledge of poverty, serious illness, death, or anything that might cause him to ask religious-type questions. “Religion just gets in the way of making a living,” said his mother. “Let’s keep him focused on STEM learning,” said his father.

Sid was admitted to Stanford at age 16. His father bought him a house near campus, mostly so his personal assistant would have an office. Soon Sid met a beautiful girl, whose parents were also high up in government, and (with a little behind-the-scenes urging from both sets of parents) even though they were only 18, the young couple got married. It was a storybook wedding in Memorial Church, a dream wedding in Silicon Valley, two motivated, attractive, talented young people in the fast lane to brilliant success.

By the time they were 19, Sid’s wife was pregnant. Being even more brilliant than Sid, she quickly finished all her course work at Stanford and made a start on her graduate study. A Nobel prize winner, with whom she had already co-authored two significant papers, had already asked her to work in his lab. She told Sid, “I’m going to enjoy the baby for six months, then I’ll lean in and finish my Ph.D.”

After the baby was born, Sid felt at loose ends. His wife was completely occupied with the baby. Somehow, he felt dissatisfied with life. He started having panic attacks again. He turned to Channa, his personal assistant, and said, “Let’s go for a drive.”

They got into Sid’s customized Tesla, and drove around the streets of Palo Alto. Suddenly, Sid noticed there were these poorly dressed men and women walking along the streets of Palo Alto. “Geez,” said Sid. “Why don’t those people get some decent clothes?”

“They’re homeless,” said Channa. “They can’t afford to.”

Sid was shocked. He never knew that people could be homeless. Questions began to rise up in his brain, but he didn’t know how to answer them.

Then in the next block, Sid and Channa saw an ambulance parked on the street. The EMTs were giving CPR to someone lying on the sidewalk.

“What’s going on?” said Sid.

They saw the EMTs stop the CPR and pull a sheet over the body. “Well,” said Channa, “it looks like someone just died.”

“Died?” said Sid. Intellectually, he knew what death was, but he had never seen someone dead before. “They died? Channa, I need to ask someone some questions about death. And maybe about homelessness. Where can I go?”

“Turn in here,” said Channa. They turned into a parking lot. “Let’s go find the minister,” said Channa. They found the minister sitting in her office. She invited Sid and Channa to sit down, and asked what was on their minds. Sid told her what he had seen: a homeless person, a dying person. He told her about the birth of his baby. He told her about his questions. She sat there and listened calmly, then after sitting in silence she said, “Those are difficult questions. You will need to find your own answers.”

Sid went home. His mind and soul were in complete turmoil. What was the point of his studies, if people were going to suffer and die? How could that minister be so calm in the face of so much that was wrong with the world? How could he answer all the questions that tumbled through his head?

“I’ve got to find answers to all these questions,” Sid thought to himself. “If I stay here, my wife will tell me to ‘lean in.’ My mother and father will tell me to focus on my career. But I need to know why there are people who have to suffer by living on the street. I need to know why people die. I need to understand better what it means to be human.”

Sid decided the only way he could answer his questions was to leave his comfortable life and wander the world as a homeless person. He looked in the bedroom, where his wife and baby were lying asleep. He reached out to pick up his baby and kiss him goodbye. But then he thought, “If I lift my wife’s hand to take my son, she will awake; and that will prevent my going away. I will come back and see him when I have become a Buddha.” And he left. (2)

So now you know that Sid is actually Siddhartha Gotama, who became the Buddha. In the original story, Siddhartha was the son of a king, but after seeing illness, death, old age, and a monk, he abandoned the royal life to become a wandering religious mendicant. I just changed a few details and transplanted this old, old story to Silicon Valley.

I tell this story because Siddhartha reminds me of some kids who live today in Silicon Valley. Siddhartha is a LOT wealthier than most Silicon Valley kids; his family was in the top one-tenth of a percent, while most families in our area are not all that wealthy, and where there are plenty of families who are just scraping by. (3) But the high expectations, that reminds me of Silicon Valley culture. The parental drive to make their child succeed, that reminds me of Silicon Valley. The way the child internalizes the drive to succeed, that reminds me of Silicon Valley. The way work or vocation is more important than family, that reminds me of Silicon Valley.

This brings me to a conversation I had with an adult in our congregation, who gave me permission to mention their remarks in this sermon. When this adult from our congregation was in high school a number of years ago in another part of the United States, there was a cluster of suicides in that high school. At first glance, the young people who committed suicide appeared popular and successful. But, says this adult, what connected those young people who committed suicide in that other time and place was their misery.

Misery is powerful emotion that acts to overwhelm other emotions. When someone falls into the depths of misery, it is hard to feel pleasure, pain, happiness, or hope. Misery is an unpleasant feeling, and when someone is in the depths of misery, they really want to get out of it.

When I listen to the story of Siddhartha, and we get to the part just before he left his family to become a wandering mendicant, I imagine that Siddhartha must have felt misery. Where did that misery come from? I imagine that for Siddhartha, his misery stemmed in large part from the fact that he was valued, not for who he was now, but for who he would someday be.

Here in Silicon Valley, there are young people growing up like Siddhartha, kids who are being carefully groomed to lead lives of power and privilege. We expect these young people to get good grades and do as many extracurricular activities as possible so that they can attend a prestigious university and get a job that will provide them with a great deal of money an influence. We require them to complete a great many community service hours, but we don’t really want them to reflect too deeply on homelessness or illness or death, or what those things mean to them. Our culture does not allow young people the time to find out for themselves who they really are.

If we never let young people think and do for themselves — if we program their every waking hour, just as Siddhartha was programmed — how can they make sense out of homelessness and death? How can they make sense out of global climate change, toxics in the environment, and a war in Afghanistan that has been going on for as long as they can remember? In his reflection, Mike Abraham said: “It can very well feel to [teenagers] like there are few real options when overwhelmed, since they haven’t had the opportunity to learn through small steps how to cope with life.”

The dominant culture tells young people: Get into a prestigious university, so you can get a good job and make lots of money. When we tell teenagers that their main purpose is to be successful sometime in the future, we are telling them that their only value lies in success. We are telling teenagers that human beings are not ends in and of themselves, but rather that humans are merely means to an end.

Notice that I’m not blaming parents of teenagers. Notice that I was very careful to say: “The dominant culture tells young people….” The parents I know love their children very much, and are doing they best they can. But in the face of such relentless pressure from the dominant culture, both parents and teenagers need support as they try to stay centered on love and human value.

I would like to suggest to you that one place parents and teenagers can get that support is in a religious community like ours. Religion is often denigrated in Silicon Valley, perhaps because religions like ours treat persons as ends in themselves, not means to an end. This is in fact a central value of Unitarian Universalism. Historically, the Universalists rejected the concept of hell because eternal damnation implies that some human beings have no value and can be discarded to be eternally tortured and punished. Universalism has changed and evolved over the years, and now we say we affirm the inherent worth and dignity of all persons; we have changed the wording, but the value itself remains constant: we treat persons as ends in themselves, not as something to be discarded, not as means to some other end.

Because our religious community affirms that persons as ends in themselves, we are a powerful antidote to the cultural norm that treats teenagers as less than human. Our teenagers do more than feed the homeless in order to get community service hours; that would be treating homeless persons simply as means to an end. Our teenagers cook and serve dinner to people who happen to be homeless, and then sit down and talk with any of the guests who want to socialize; they treat the guests as guests, as fully human. When we treat other persons as ends in themselves, we learn and re-learn that we too are not mere means to an end, but rather we are fully human.

And our teenagers do more than receive services from this religious community. We want our teenagers to be full participants in our religious community. Depending on their interests and skills, our teenagers might teach Sunday school alongside adults, or participate in social justice projects, or serve as worship associates. We have teens who are full participating members on both the Board of Trustees and the Committee on Ministry, our two most important committees. Our teenagers may, if they wish to do so, sign the membership book, which means they can both vote in congregational meetings and make a financial pledge to the congregation. And, as is true of many adults, many teens simply show up, and make a contribution simply by being here. Our religious community does not wait for young people to become something sometime in the future; we consider them to be fully human now, fully able to contribute to and benefit from our community.

The ancient sage and prophet Jesus of Nazareth affirmed that we should love our neighbor as we love ourselves. “Do that, and you will live,” he is reported to have said. (4) I am not so idealistic as to believe we can somehow stop all suicides, but I believe we can at least get our suicide rate down to the national average. We can do this by committing ourselves to loving, and be loved by others. When we place the highest value on loving others as we love ourselves, then success will come, not with academic success, not with success in the future, but with sharing our common humanity together in community. Whether you are over the age of 18, or under that age, we can treat each other as worthy of love for who we are, worthy of love right now, worthy of love simply because we are human.

Notes:
(1) Hanna Rosin, “The Silicon Valley Suicides: Why Are So Many Kids Killing Themselves in Palo Alto?” The Atlantic, vol. 316, no. 5, December, 2015, pp. 62-73.
(2) My source for Buddha’s early life is Jataka-nidana: The Story of Gotama Buddha, trans. from original Pali texts by N. A. Jayawickrama (Oxford: Pali Text Society, 2002 corrected edition), pp. 66-72.
(3) It should be noted that not everyone in Silicon Valley is wealthy or even well-off. “The percentage of students that participate in the Federal free and reduced lunch program is 8.8%,” according to the “Palo Alto High School 2014-2015 School Profile” (http://paly.net/sites/default/files/PalyProfile%26GradingKey1415_2014-10-16.pdf accessed 24 Dec. 2105 11:59 UTC). And for more on the effect of inequality on the lives of teenagers, see Robert Putnam, Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2015).
(4) Luke 10.27-28.

Neuroscience and Liberal Religion

The sermon below was preached by Rev. Dan Harper at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Palo Alto, California, at the 9:30 and 11:00 a.m. services. The sermon text below is a reading text; the actual sermon contained improvisation and extemporaneous remarks. Sermon copyright (c) 2012 Daniel Harper.

Reading — This morning’s reading comes Samuel Johnson’s Rambler, issue number 32:

The cure for the greater part of human miseries is not radical, but palliative. Infelicity is involved in corporeal nature and interwoven with our being. All attempts, therefore, to decline it wholly are useless and vain:

The armies of pain send their arrows against us on every side, the choice is only between those which are more or less sharp, or tinged with poison of greater or less malignity; and the strongest armor which reason can supply will only blunt their points, but cannot repel them.

Sermon — “Neuroscience and Liberal Religion”

In his reflection, Roy King talked about the wonders of science, and mentioned the Higgs Boson. Well, one Sunday morning the Higgs Boson walked into a Catholic mass. The service is about to start, and the Higgs boson shouts “Stop!” The priest turns to look at him, and says, “Why should I stop?” The Higgs boson says, “Because you can’t have mass without me.” (1)

But seriously:

We religious liberals like to talk about the wonders revealed by science. We find religious inspiration in what science reveals to us about the world. It may be less than correct to call the Higgs boson the “God particle,” as some journalists have taken to doing; nevertheless, what I have read about the discovery of the Higgs boson fills me with awe and wonder.

The wonder of science arises from observations of the world around us to which we apply our reasoning abilities in community with others. This combination of reason applied to shared observation reveals a wondrous world that can delight and astonish us. And this combination of observation and reason can be applied to the problems of living: we develop drugs to fight disease, we breed new varieties of crops to alleviate food shortages and hunger, we apply materials science and physics to develop photovoltaic panels. It can feel as though we should rely exclusively on reason as we determine how to live our lives.

Over the past couple of years, I’ve been particularly aware of the wonders of a specific branch of science — the wonder that results from contemplating the recent advances in “brain science,” a loose term which roughly encompasses neuroscience, cognitive science, and portions of allied disciplines such as developmental psychology. If you’re like me, you are accustomed to thinking that you know pretty well how your mind works. For example, we all know perfectly well that if we want to carry out some action, first we decide what we’re going to do, and then we do it: I decide that I’m going to take a bite out of a bagel, and after I make that decision, I reach down and pick up the bagel to take a bit. That’s generally how we think our minds think: first we decide to do something, then we do it.

But this is not the way our brains work much of the time. The neuroscientist David Eagleman puts it this way: “Our brains run mostly on autopilot, and the conscious mind has little access to the giant and mysterious factory that runs below it. You see evidence of this when your foot gets halfway to the brake before you consciously realize that a red Toyota is backing out of a driveway on the road ahead of you.” (2)

Another neuroscientist, Michael Gazzaniga, did research in the 1970s on people who had had the neurons between the left and right brain hemispheres severed. In one experiment, researchers showed a different scene to each of the eyes of one of these people: the eye controlled by one hemisphere saw a snow scene, while the eye controlled by the other hemisphere saw a chicken. The researchers then asked the person to asked to choose another image that was related to the image they had just seen. When the eye controlled by the right hemisphere of the brain had seen the snow scene, the hand controlled by that same hemisphere chose as its related image a shovel — to shovel the snow, obviously. But the centers of speech and logic are controlled by the left hemisphere of the brain, which meant that when the asked the person to say why s/he had chosen the shovel, the left hemisphere was unable to respond (because the neural connections between the two hemispheres had been severed). So the person said they had chosen the shovel in order to shovel — the chicken manure. (3)

Our brains are extremely adept at coming up with reasons for our actions after the fact. You step on the brake pedal and you avoid hitting that red Toyota that’s backing out of the driveway in front of you; your brain makes up a story that you decided to step on the brake, but in reality your foot was stepping on the brake before you made a conscious decision to do so. Reason is a product of the conscious mind, and consciousness is a small part of our brain’s activity. Powerful though reason may be, we are not entirely reasonable beings.

Yet for us religious liberals, reason sometimes serves as a central tenet of our religious life. We have not affirmed traditional conceptions of a Christian God in the eighteenth century, when the Unitarians declared that Jesus was not God, and when the Universalists declared that God would not send anyone to hell. Today, half of all Unitarian Universalists call themselves humanists or atheists, and say that there is no deity, or deities, at all. The absence of God in our shared religious life appears to have left a kind of God-shaped hole, and I have seen people try to fill that God-shaped hole with reason. I don’t mean to imply that we try to turn reason into a god, but we do ascribe powers to reason that are not confirmed by science. We have developed a myth that would have us believe in supernatural powers of reason.

Here is one version of the myth of reason:

Some hundreds of thousands of years ago, hominids began to evolve brains that could reason. These hominids eventually evolved into the species Homo sapiens, beings who could think and reason. As time went by, humans became more and more reasonable, and we became able to penetrate the mysteries of the cosmos. As we gradually came into full use of reason, with its help we were able to develop science and technology, and at last we have come to the point where we can solve all problems facing us (that’s supposed to be a punch line, in case you want to laugh). The power of reason gives us the power to order human life so that as many people as possible — and eventually all people — can live out their lives in grace and beauty, and in freedom from want. And as our reason has grown, we have learned to dismiss old, unreasonable myths about the universe. We have evolved beyond the idea that we are not in control of our own destiny: we no longer believe, for instance, we have to sacrifice living beings to propitiate the gods. Some of us would say we have evolved beyond the need for belief in a supernatural being, for our reason shows us that there is no supernatural world.

This is a wonderful myth. This myth sustains much of our social justice work, for we believe that we can consciously reason out ways to reduce human suffering, and that reason will ultimately prevail over the forces of ignorance and stupidity that cause human suffering. And this myth sustains much of our ontological speculation, for we believe that we can consciously reason out the underlying structure of being and existence. But neuroscience and cognitive science have undermined a central belief set forth by this myth, that we can consciously reason our ways through life. We have far less conscious control over our lives than this myth would have us believe.

Since this myth of all-powerful reason is not supported by brain science, I’d like to tell you that brain science has come up with a useful alternative for the practical living of our day-to-day lives. But to the best of my knowledge it has not. Nor should we really expect it to: science is a powerful way of making careful observations, revealing the wonders of the world around us. It has not proven so useful as a way to structure ordinary life.

In particular, I am not aware that brain science has offered much in the way of useful research on organized religion. I have read about a study where scientists studied the brains of Buddhist monks meditating, and Christian nuns praying, and found that there were similarities between the two in terms of the parts of the brains which were activated by meditation in the one, and prayer in the other. (4) Not being a Buddhist monk nor a Christian nun, this is not of much use to me. I’m not part of an insulated group engaged in esoteric practices, I’m part of an ordinary congregation; and the problems I face, and that I see others around me facing, are problems for which brain science seems to offer no real guidance.

Let me give you an example of one such problem, taken from the life of Samuel Johnson.

Johnson was perhaps one of the most reasonable of all writers in the English language, a thinker who epitomizes the link in Enlightenment thought between reason and morality. He was also aware of the limits of reason. In this morning’s reading, we heard Johnson tell us that reason can perhaps blunt the miseries and calamities of human life, but reason cannot do away with those miseries and calamities. He did not think that we could end all human suffering through the use of reason. For Johnson had directly experienced the limits of his own reason at least twice in his life. In his twenties and again in his fifties, he suffered some kind of breakdown. After each of these breakdowns, both he and his close friends felt that there had been times when he could be called “mad,” what we today would call mentally ill.

Arthur Murphy, in a brief biography, described one time when Johnson felt he was losing his reason: “In 1766 [Johnson’s] constitution seemed to be in a rapid decline, and that morbid melancholy, which often clouded his understanding, came upon him with a deeper gloom than ever. [His good friends] Mr. and Mrs. Thrale paid him a visit in this situation, and found him on his knees, with Dr. Delap, the rector of Lewes, in Sussex, beseeching God to continue to him the use of his understanding.” (5)

Mr. and Mrs. Thrale were deeply affected by this scene. Mrs. Thrale later wrote: “I felt excessively affected with grief, and well remember my husband involuntarily lifted up one hand to shut [Johnson’s] mouth, from provocation at hearing a man so wildly proclaim what he could at last persuade no one to believe, and what, if true, would have been so very unfit to reveal.” (6) The Thrales immediately took Johnson to their country home, where they nursed him back to some semblance of health over the next three months.

Johnson was not able to reason his way out of his state of mind. Nor does brain science tell us what Johnson should have done for himself. But what Johnson did to recover from his breakdown is supported by brain science; and for those of us looking for practical guidance in how to live our own ordinary lives, it’s worth hearing what Johnson did:

First, for all his genius and power of reason, Johnson realized that he did not have as much conscious control over himself as he would have liked to have had. Therefore, he realized that he had to rely on other people. When Mr. and Mrs. Thrale found him having a breakdown, he was able to let them take him to their country house and nurse him back to health.

Nothing about a willingness to rely on others contradicts the insights of brain science. Once we realize that our conscious minds aren’t in as much control as we’d like to think, it would be logical and practical to rely on the help and insights of those around us. Indeed, the field of cognitive science, particularly as applied to education, has shown that thinking and learning sometimes takes place, not within our individual brains, but in a shared social setting: that is, cognition may be distributed among several persons, rather than limited to the insides of one person’s brain. Thus it makes complete sense to get in the habit of relying on other people in our day-to-day lives. This is, in fact, one of the primary functions of a religious congregation like ours: to get us in the habit of relying on others.

Second point: As we heard in this morning’s reading, Johnson said in the face of life’s miseries and calamities, reason is of limited usefulness. And in the passage immediately following this morning’s reading, he went on to say what does help at times of misery and calamity: “The great remedy which heaven has put in our hands is patience, by which, though we cannot lessen the torments of the body, we can in a great measure preserve the peace of the mind, and shall suffer only the natural and genuine force of an evil without heightening its acrimony or prolonging its effects.” (7)

Think about Johnson’s breakdown, and the way Mr. and Mrs. Thrale took him off to the country for three months to recover. I’m sure Johnson could have found better things to do with those the three months than to be nursed back to health. But he had cultivated the habit of patience, and for those three months he was able to put aside his eagerness to work on his writing, and take the time to recover his mental health.

We don’t place much value on patience in twenty-first century America. But think of patience as a habit of mind that can be cultivated to get us through those times when reason isn’t going to help. It’s like the habits you form when you learn how to drive: you don’t have time to think about stepping on the brake when you see that red Toyota backing out in front of you, you just do it. In a similar way, we can cultivate the habit of patience.

Third, and finally, Johnson used religion as a mental discipline that helped him to reflect on himself, his morals, his failings, his strengths, his place in society and his effect on others. His written prayers often reveal great depths of personal insight into his character; and he went to Sunday services for much the same purpose: to engage in reflection and introspection.

From a practical standpoint, organized religion helps develop habits that not only give us insight into our emotions and motivations, and allow us to set up patterns in our lives to change our behavior for the better. Some brain scientists like to say, “Neurons that fire together, wire together.” (8) Johnson coupled his habit of deep personal introspection with reflection on the highest moral values. Thus when he prayed or went to Sunday services, his neurons were wired to do some introspection and reflection; he was automatically drawn into remembering his highest values.

So we have seen that brain science is helping us religious liberals understand the limits of reason. We don’t have as much conscious control over life as we’d maybe like to think, and we may have to rethink liberal religion’s strong insistence of self-reliance. And as it turns out, maybe we should be looking at another aspect of liberal religion. We can find great value, not just in the speculative hyper-rational side of liberal religion, but also in the power of common religious habits that help us structure our lives so that we can get through the problems that face us in ordinary living. After all, that’s why we come here each Sunday morning: to renew the habits that help us get through another week of ordinary life.

Notes:

(1) Original joke appears to have been written by science comedian Brian Malow; see e.g. this 2009 video of Malow speaking in Berkeley, California.
(2) Eagleman, Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain, Pantheon, 2011.
(3) Information about Gazzaniga research taken from a lecture by David Hogue.
(4) See, e.g., this Reuters interview of neurologist Andrew Newberg.
(5) Arthur Murphy, “An Essay on the Life and Genius of Samuel Johnson, LL.D.,” c. 1792. In Johnsonian Miscellanies, 1835.
(6) Hester [Thrale] Piozzi, Anecdotes of the Late Samuel Johnson, 1786.
(7) Samuel Johnson, Rambler, no. 32.
(8) Phrase based on a theory developed by Donald Hebb in 1949. Neurobiologist Carla Schatz appears to have popularized this form of Hebb’s theory.

For background information about Samuel Johnson’s life, I also consulted Samuel Johnson: A Biography (1977) by W. Jackson Bate, and James Boswell’s Life of Johnson (1791).

Powerful Habits

The sermon below was preached by Rev. Dan Harper at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Palo Alto, California, at the 10:30 a.m. service. The sermon text below is a reading text; the actual sermon contained improvisation and extemporaneous remarks. Sermon copyright (c) 2012 Daniel Harper.

Reading

This morning’s reading comes from the essay “How To Make Our Ideas Clear” by Charles Sanders Peirce:

From all these sophisms we shall be perfectly safe so long as we reflect that the whole function of thought is to produce habits of action; and that whatever there is connected with a thought, but irrelevant to its purpose, is an accretion to it, but no part of it…. To develop its meaning, we have, therefore, simply to determine what habits it produces, for what a thing means is simply what habits it involves.

(“How To Make Our Ideas Clear,” Charles Sanders Peirce, Chance, Love, and Logic: Philosophical Essays, ed. Morris R. Cohen [New York: Harcourt, Brace, and World, 1923], pp. 41-42.)

Sermon — “Powerful Habits”

Here’s a story from the Buddhist tradition, the twenty-sixth Jataka tale; the Jataka tales tell of the previous incarnations of Gautama Buddha. The story goes like this:

Once upon a time, a king had an elephant named Damsel-face, who was virtuous and good, and never hurt a soul. But one day, robbers came and sat beside the elephant’s stall at night ro make their wicked plans. They said to each other, “If someone catches you in the act, don’t hesitate to kill them. Get rid of all goodness and virtue, be pitiless, cruel, and violent.”

The robbers kept coming back, night after night, to talk over their plans. Damesel-face got into the habit of listening to them, and at last the elephant concluded that he, too, must turn pitiless, cruel, and violent. The next morning when his keeper appeared, the elephant picked him up with his trunk, and dashed him to death on the ground. When another man came into the stall to see what had happened, Damsel-face picked him up, too, and dashed him to death on the ground.

The news came to the king that Damsel-face had gone mad and was killing people. The king sent his prime minister (who was, as it happens, Gautama Buddha in an earlier incarnation) to find out what was going on.

The prime minister quickly determined that there was nothing physically wrong with Damsel-face. Thus he determined that someone must have been talking near Damsel-face. He asked the elephant-keepers if anyone new had been seen near Damsel-face’s stall. They replied that for some weeks a band of robbers came to sit and talk outside the stall every evening.

The prime minister told the king that the elephant had been perverted by the talk of robbers.

“What is to be done now?” said the king.

“Remove the robbers,” said the prime minister. “Order good men, sages and brahmins, to sit in his stall and to talk of goodness.”

This was done. Good men and sages sat near the elephant and talked. “Neither maltreat nor kill,” they said. “The good should be loving and merciful.”

Hearing this, the elephant thought they must mean this as a lesson for him, and resolved thenceforth to become good. And good he became.

(Story adapted from Mahilamukha-Jataka, The Jataka, or Stories of the Buddha’s Former Births vol. 1, ed. E. B. Cowell, trans. Robert Chalmers [Oxford: Pali Text Society, 2004; Oxford University, 1895], pp. 68-69.)

The point of this story is similar to the point of this morning’s reading: If we would discover a person’s thoughts, we should observe their habits. Or to put it another way: You are your habits. This was the great insight of nineteenth century philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce, the author of this morning’s reading.

Recent advances in neuroscience confirm Peirce’s insight. Neuroscientists have found we may come to a conscious decision to engage in an action only after we have already commenced that action; at times our conscious thoughts serve only as an after-the-fact justification of something we have already started doing. We may have far less conscious control over our actions than our conscious thoughts would have us believe. Consider the act of walking: how could we possibly walk if we had to make a conscious decision about each action involved in walking? — now I will lift up my left foot, now I will move it forward, now I will place it on the ground, now I will lift up my right foot, and so on. If we had to retain conscious control over every action involved in walking, we would have a hard time getting anywhere, and we would certainly not be able to chew bubblegum while we walked.

The greatest portion of our lives is governed, not by conscious thought, but by the habits we develop over time. This is true of basic everyday physical actions like walking and talking; it is also true of our social and moral actions. We rarely have the luxury of having enough time to think through every moral decision we must make; we have to rely on habit.

Habit is built through repetition, through doing something over and over again. Mastery of a new skill begins when some of the actions involved in that skill become automatic, when they become a matter of habit. If you have a driver’s license, you probably have some vivid memories of the mistakes you made before driving a car had become an automatic process for you. And then when you become expert at something, you have to continue to maintain your expertise; if you stop driving for a period of some years, it may take some time to regain your confidence; a musician may master an instrument, but even after achieving mastery a musician must continue to practice to maintain mastery.

Maintaining habits may take less time than we think. Neuroscientists have discovered that in some cases you can just think about something to maintain some level of expertise. Some musicians have exploited this fact. The concert pianist Hélène Grimaud can rehearse for a concert by playing through a piece in her head: “Mat Hennek, her current partner, remembers that one day, when he and Grimaud were first dating, they went shopping in Philadelphia and then to a Starbucks. At one point, he recalls, ‘I said to Hélène, “Hélène, you have a concert coming. Did you practice?” And she said, “I played the piece two times in my head.”‘” [D. T. Max, “Hélène Grimaud’s Life as a Concert Pianist,” New Yorker November 7, 2011.] It should be said that Grimaud is known for playing many wrong notes during her concerts, and perhaps she needs to spend more time practicing at the piano, not just in her head. Nevertheless, it is relatively easy to maintain a habit that is already in place.

We human beings are creatures of habit. While we Unitarian Universalists like to believe that we human beings are basically rational, and that we human beings have a great deal of control over our own actions, this belief does not exactly correspond with who we are. We are more like the elephant Damsel-face than we would like to believe: reason and rationality have only limited influence over the power of habits.

Yet it is possible for us to use our reason, to have conscious control over our lives, by using the power of habits. A prime example of this may be found in the Silicon Valley culture in which we live. Silicon Valley culture encourages us to be innovators: we break through old habits to develop new and innovative ways of doing things. In this way, Silicon Valley culture shows us how innovation itself can become a habit: to innovate is to form the habit of always questioning the way we do things habitually; it is a skill that is learned through repetition until it becomes a habit.

The habit of innovation is both personal — if you’re a creative engineer, you get in the habit of seeing the world in new ways;— and the habit of innovation is social — one of the reasons people come to Silicon Valley is because here we can meet many other people who have personal habits of innovation. All habits are both personal and social: it is easier to form the habits we want when we are surrounded with people who already have those habits, or who are also trying to form those habits.

Though I suspect we religious liberals rarely think about it, religion is a matter of habit and repetition. We have a tendency to do the same things over and over; and we work to develop habits that support our highest values. Some of these habits are more personal: we pray, we meditate, we write in journals. Some of these habits are more social, and the social habits support and reinforce our personal habits. This is why we like to do the same things in the same way year after year in our religious community. Repetition and ritual, doing the same things over and over again in the same way, helps us keep the good habits we came here to get. And so every year in late December, we tell the same story about the birth of a human being who grew up to a powerful prophet of love; we tell that story year after year in order to remind ourselves to dedicate ourselves to the habit of love in its highest sense; and we come here to this religious community to tell this story so that we are surrounded with other people who are also maintaining the habit of love.

This kind of repetition can make our liberal religious congregations feel like conservative institutions at times. It is never easy to balance the need for repetition and sameness against the religious liberal’s need for ongoing evolution. I think this balance can feel particularly hard to achieve here in Silicon Valley, amidst the culture of innovation. It is hard to balance the habit of repetition and sameness which help keep us true to our highest values, and on the other hand the combined effect of the Silicon Valley habit of innovation and the liberal religious habit of ongoing evolution.

To maintain our balance, there are two social habits that we religious liberals especially cultivate. First, we cultivate the habit of skeptical argument; and second, we cultivate the habit of keeping the sabbath. Let me describe each of these, beginning with skeptical argument.

 

By definition, we religious liberals are skeptics, and as such argument is one of our chief forms of religious practice. We argue with one another so we won’t settle for comfortable platitudes that feel good but are only partially true. We argue with one another because we know that no one person has complete access to the entire truth of things. We argue because we know that the only way to find truth is to be a part of a community of inquirers.

Argument is neither a comfortable nor a comforting religious habit. When you engage in true skeptical argument with someone else, or in a religious community, you take the risk that someone else is going to show you where you are not quite right. I have had this happen frequently, and sometimes very publicly, for when you preach to a room full of religious liberals for whom skeptical argument is a spiritual practice, there is a very good chance that someone will talk to you after the sermon, and show you where you need to think more deeply about a particular topic. I knew a man who wrote down questions that arose for him during the sermon, and he would hand that list of three or four questions to the preacher at the end of the service. When I was the preacher, I both looked forward to and dreaded receiving that list of questions; I dreaded getting the list because usually at least one of the questions would reveal a place where I had not fully thought through some part of the sermon; I looked forward to getting that list because his questions invariably made me think more deeply about the topic. Like most religious liberals, I find it refreshing to think about something in a new way. A bath of ice cold water is also very refreshing, but that doesn’t mean it is comfortable or comforting.

We religious liberals cultivate the social habit of skeptical argument through listening to sermons, and then most importantly talking about those sermons during social hour. When I attend a Sunday service, I make sure to leave time to attend social hour. And I always feel bitterly disappointed when no one talks about the sermon during social hour. Even if the sermon is boring, I gain a lot by trying to find the kernel of truth in that boring sermon, and then talking through where that kernel of truth might lead us. When the sermon challenges me, and prompts me to think about things in a new way, that’s even better, and then I really need to talk about it with other people during social hour.

The primary habit of skeptical argument in our liberal congregations is this process of hearing a sermon, finding the kernel of truth in it, talking about it to find where it might lead us, and so moving closer to truth in the company of a community of inquirers. We religious liberals do not listen to sermons passively; sermons, even bad sermons, give us something to think about, to talk about, to argue about. This is why Unitarian Universalists have a long tradition of having educated clergy, ministers with learning, preachers who will provoke us, teach us, sometimes annoy us, provide us with fodder for our ongoing skeptical arguments.

(A parenthetical note: I cannot help mentioning two other methods of cultivating skeptical argument: teaching or attending Sunday school, and participating in the Sunday morning forum. If you have ever taught a class of lively fourth and fifth graders, or if you have ever participated in a lively discussion in the forum, you know that you can cultivate the habit of skeptical argument in either setting. As someone who teaches Sunday school most Sundays’, though, what I miss is the chance to participate in skeptical argument with the larger number of people attending the main services. As good as teaching Sunday school can be, it is also good to come regularly to the sermons in the Main Hall.)

Sermons, or any statements, cause problems when we accept them passively. That is what happened to the elephant Damsel-face: when the robbers came and sat next to his stall and talked about evil doings, Damsel-face passively accepted what they said as truth; and in this passive acceptance Damsel-face himself turned bad. Had Damsel-face been a religious liberal, he would have gone to social hour afterwards and argued about what they had said, talked about how what the robbers said contained no real kernel of truth, and so (we hope) he would have moved towards higher moral truths.

The story of Damsel-face also implies that we should choose with care those people with whom we would argue. We want to have our skeptical arguments with other people who also aspire to the highest human values, so we develop the habit of good thoughts, and good actions. Like Damsel-face at the end of the story, we want to spend time each week with good people, our equivalent of sages and brahmins, with whom we can talk about goodness and truth, and who will encourage us to go out into the world and do good.

 

The other habit we religious liberals cultivate, in addition to the habit of skeptical argument, is the habit of keeping the sabbath. Unlike other religious traditions that keep the sabbath, we don’t have a complex set of rules and rituals to follow on the sabbath. Our rules are simple: show up here each week, or as often as we can, often enough to cultivate the habit. Obviously, a big part of keeping the sabbath for us Unitarian Universalists is the opportunity to engage in skeptical argument. But we also come here to spend time with others who are striving after the highest human values.

This was how the damage to Damsel-face the elephant was repaired: sages, wise and virtuous people, sat down regularly with Damsel-face to talk about goodness. This is what happens to us in our lives. We cannot avoid spending time in settings where goodness and truth and virtue are not the highest values — every time I drive on the freeway, I find myself in such a setting; in my previous careers, some of my workplaces felt like I was spending time with a band of robbers. We come here each week, or as often as possible, to keep the sabbath and recall ourselves to truth and goodness.

In order to keep the sabbath, we don’t have to do anything in particular; all that’s required is that we show up, and spend time with others who also strive after the highest values. Like Damsel-face listening to the wise sages, we don’t necessarily have to do anything; we can just sit and listen to talk that aims at the highest virtues. It is probably better if we engage in some skeptical argument, but it is not necessary. What is most important is that we show up here for a couple of hours each week; the sabbath is a time we can let our souls lie fallow, a time to let ourselves rejuvenate.

Like the elephant Damsel-face, we human beings need to spend time in good company; we need to listen, and take part in, good and virtuous conversation. So it is we cultivate the habit of skeptical argument; so it is we cultivate the habit of keeping the sabbath, in our liberal religious sense of it. And may our cultivation of these powerful habits lead us to become better and wiser people.