On the one hand, I live in Yatesville, Georgia, and so I live in the country. On the other hand, I live on Highway 74, which is a pretty busy road. Big trucks are especially fond of travelling on it; I’m told that most of them are on their way to or from the ports on the Georgia coast.
Cars and trucks zoom by frequently and some of them are pretty loud. But after a month and a half of living there, I hardly hear them anymore.
There’s a psychological term for that phenomenon—it’s called “habituation.” Habituation occurs when you develop a decreased response to a regularly occurring stimulus. In other words, you get used to it. I don’t hear the trucks because my brain has adjusted to the regularity of their roars. The sound is still there; it’s just that for me, it’s become background noise. It’s a helpful adaptation that allows you to concentrate on what’s important without being distracted.
But habituation can be a hurtful development in some areas of our life, particularly if we are unaware that we have become habituated. And sometimes we become habituated to things to which we really ought not become habituated.
So, for example, habituation can harm our relationships. It’s especially true of the ones we have with our family members and it’s extra especially true of the ones we have with those family members with whom we share a home. We see them every day and so we grow accustomed to their presence. If we’re not careful, they’ll become like the furniture—they’re there and they play a useful purpose, but that’s about it. Familiarity may not breed contempt, but it sure can produce apathy. Sadly, many of us have become so habituated to our family members that we take them for granted.
We need to work at keeping our family members in the foreground of our consciousness. We should engage them in regular conversation; we should find out what they think and feel and then take their thoughts and feelings seriously. It is a rare privilege to get to know someone personally and intimately; we need to take full advantage of the opportunity.
Habituation can also lessen our compassion. Our world is filled with people who have tremendous needs. Some of those people are on the other side of the world, some on the other side of the country, some on the other side of town, and some on the other side of the room. But we’ve heard so much about all the problems in the world that it’s easy for us to regard such reports as background noise; it’s always there and so we learn to tune it out so we can concentrate on whatever we regard as more pressing. Besides, we all have our own problems, too, and sometimes we don’t pay attention to other people’s pain because it’s all we can do, we tell ourselves, to bear our own.
Think, though, of how much healthier and stronger the world could be if we all cared about each other’s struggles and suffering. Think about how much lighter everyone’s burden would be if we joined together in carrying them rather than letting everybody sink or swim on their own. The first step, though, is to let the needs of the world move to the front of our consciousness. Once we look and listen, then we can do what we can to help. We become less than human when we stop paying attention to each other’s needs.
Habituation can also stunt our spirituality. Many of us have heard about God for our whole lives; some of us have gone to church from the time we were infants. But have talk about God and the worship of God become background noise to us? Worse—and it is much worse if it is the case—have we become habituated to the whispering of God’s Spirit in our spirits and to the prodding of God’s love in our hearts? Have we come to take God for granted?
If we are going to have a growing relationship with God, we must keep our lives open to the presence of God. How do we do that? Well, the first thing we need to do is to take God seriously. And we take God seriously by keeping God first and foremost in our consciousness; we take God seriously by actively and purposefully thinking about God. But we need to go deeper than thinking; we need to engage in communion and communication with God. We do that by praying, by pouring our hearts out to God and by opening our hearts up to whatever God wants to say to us.
Let’s not let habituation stop us from relating fully and freely to our loved ones, to our fellow people, and to our God. They deserve our full attention.
(First appeared in "Ruffin's Renderings" in the Thomaston (GA) Times on June 19, 2015)