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COMMENTARY: Why interruptions are sometimes a good thing Eric Van Meter, Aug 10, 2012
Eric Van Meter
By Eric Van Meter Special Contributor
“You’re doing it again.”
I looked wearily at Joseph, my camp roommate, from where I stood beside our sink. For 1:00 a.m. on the last night of camp, Joseph looked remarkably alert and presentable. I hated him just a little for that. But I had no idea what act I might have repeated that merited comment.
Joseph sensed my confusion.
“Your teeth,” he said. “You already brushed them.”
I looked down at the toothbrush in my right hand and the travel-sized tube of toothpaste in my left. And I realized with a wave of embarrassment that he was right. I reached for the mouthwash.
“You did that too,” Joseph said.
I grumbled something at him and went to bed. But the story followed me to breakfast, where my roommate and the other counselors kept checking to see that I wasn’t going to melt down from fatigue from the last day of camp. I stewed over it as I ate.
At 38, I am not a young man anymore, but I don’t quite consider myself middle aged, either. Yet when I thought back over my week, I could see evidence of what might be considered senility. I tried to park in my normal workday lot instead of a block over at the dorms where we were staying. I left my office building on campus to meet the group at the dining hall, but found myself standing in the Post Office instead.
I did a lot of things that I normally do, but that were not at all what I had originally set out to do. This apparent disconnect between my intentions and my actions worried me enough that I referred to my collection of nerd books for answers.
Trapped by routine
It turns out that I’m not losing my mind quite yet. According to brain scientist and author David Eagleman, the issue is at once more simple and more complex than that.
In his book Incognito, Dr. Eagleman explores the way our brains train themselves for efficiency. Repetitive actions create neuropathways which form computer-like programs in our brains. When we begin to learn something—a sport or a musical instrument or the route to a new job—we have to think about each facet of what we’re doing.
Before long, though, our brain and muscles learn to circumvent our consciousness, at least to a point. We can hit a ball or play a scale or drive to work without thinking much about it at all. It frees our minds to think more about other things—like whether or not all the campers are in bed after lights out—rather than focusing on minutiae.
Once those programs engage, however, they can run without us realizing it. That’s how we drive home when we really meant to go to a friend’s house. Or brush our teeth for the second time in 10 minutes.
Or get trapped by routine on the road of discipleship.
Not that these program-like systems are all bad. The ability to form them is hard-wired into us as individuals and intentionally built into communal life in the United Methodist Church. When necessary but inconsequential tasks can be accomplished with a minimum of effort, we have more energy to put toward more taxing issues.
The problem occurs when our individual or collective programs become less about efficiency and more about ease. We develop patterns that we revert back to when challenged or uncertain. Unfortunately, the easiest patterns are often the least healthy. We make excuses. We gain weight. We drum up conflict in church, regardless of how trivial.
It takes very little energy to follow our set patterns, even if they manifest themselves in different ways. This, I suspect, is part of the reason that restructuring at the general church level was viewed by many as a savior—and why it ultimately didn’t work. To paraphrase Robert Pirsig, the rationality that produced a structure we tear down will inevitably produce a new yet similar structure.
But that is a lofty example, and quite removed from most of our daily realities. For most of us, the struggle to develop healthier patterns in ourselves and in our congregations is difficult enough that we often find ourselves at a loss as to what to do next. So we run the programs we’re used to.
This is why things like camps and retreats are so important. They are not simply avenues to get away from stress or boredom. They are reset points, times and places that intentionally—and sometimes dramatically—interrupt the programs that we let spool within us.
Jesus understood the need for interruption. Time and again, he broke the inertia that threatened his mission by going away, perhaps to the desert alone or to the Mount of Olives with his disciples. Epiphany might come to his followers on these occasions, such as it did at the Transfiguration. But retreat was not simply a search for a revelation. It was a pattern that disrupted normal life in a healthy way.
For the members of the flock I’m in, camp turned out to be a beautiful disruption. It may have created its share of chaos, but it was chaos that lifted us out of the normal chaos. We found a space in which we could remember that we are more than cogs in someone else’s machine. That we are God’s handiwork, made for good works, created to create.
That we are more than the programs that sometimes run us. That we have choices that matter.
The Rev. Van Meter directs the Wesley Foundation at Arkansas State University. Contact him at email@example.com.