Sabbath Commentary

Link post

Epistemic Status: Several months of experimentation, then talking from the hip

Commentary On: Bring Back the Sabbath

Required: Slack

I have a lot of thoughts on the topic that don’t belong in the main presentation. I’m going to put them here in disorganized form for the curious. These claims are believed, but I may not have good explicit evidence to defend them with. I’m fine with that.

I. Slack Against Slack

One might challenge Sabbath with, “Isn’t it weird protecting Slack by taking Slack away? Aren’t you avoiding hard bounds on behavior by imposing hard bounds on behavior?

Yes, I am doing that. Yes it is weird. Also suspicious.

You’re taking some types of Slack away by forbidding and requiring activities, to guard and create the Slack that matters.

This can backfire. When I was a kid the Sabbath was rules preventing fun. Saturday was just Sunday except nothing worked and you sat in a room for three hours while people mumbled in Hebrew. That’s not a solution, that’s making the problem worse. Sunday was free from outside pressures and insanely great! Why not do that?

So no, not everyone needs a Sabbath for Slack or relaxation. It is one solution among many to the problems of outside pressures, to too many choices, to having less than no time and not enough money. Not everyone even has those problems. If you have so much time and so little to do, rather than striking that and reversing it, a regular Sabbath is not right for you. This is your periodic reminder to reverse all advice you hear.

You still need to take stock sometimes. If there’s nothing worth doing, forcing the issue by taking away your social media and match three games might help solve your rut. Is that worth one day in seven? Probably not, but one in forty-nine?

II. Sabbath Dinner

I kept and went into a lot of detail on the Sabbath dinner. The dinner speaks to me and my needs a lot. It might not speak to yours, but I’m a big fan, and want to say more about that. Here are some non-obvious benefits, in addition to the ones I already mentioned – a place and time that enables social gatherings and visits and/​or family/​relationship time, a strong demarcation and strongly positive experience for the transition to your day of rest, and providing urgency and incentive to take care of business around the house and make it a place worth living in.

Sabbath dinner gives incentive and opportunity to learn to cook. Cooking skill is an investment that pays off. The few things I know how to cook well provide great benefit to me, even though my wife Laura is a much better cook. If you can’t cook, you’ll be forced to do commerce constantly to eat reasonably. Having to go into that mode in order to get your daily sustenance is actually pretty bad. It’s great to know that if need be, you can take care of things yourself, if you’re short on cash or in an unfamiliar place without good options. There’s also something very satisfying about both cooking and knowing how to cook. With time, you learn to make things exactly the way you like, and things are pretty great. They’re even better than that for those around you. Highly recommended. Basic life skills and self-sufficiency are a thing, they are key to Slack. Muddling through without them is a trap.

This then contrasts with the lack of cooking during Sabbath. I suspect that it should go a step further and you should perhaps fast on the Sabbath, with the feast at the start setting you up well for either. Fasting takes away the distraction of thinking about food, and fasting is a key Slack skill – if you need to eat all the time, that can lead to some bad trade-offs. If I don’t have good options I know I can always fast, because I have the practice. Even if cooking is allowed, consumption shouldn’t be a focus during the Sabbath day, it’s out of place.

There’s also making sure you treat yourself to one true feast each week, one indulgence for yourself. You need it, you deserve it, and you need to confirm that you have the Slack for it. You want something to have gratitude for – prayer and blessings are phrased like you’re trying to placate or negotiate or petition a higher power, but really it’s a trick to get you to write gratitude letters. Thus, you want the meal to be visibly abundant and bountiful. This is why it’s important to me to have two full loaves of bread for the main blessing. You only truly needed one, but you make sure to have two anyway.

The wine is similar. I don’t drink, but I totally understand the idea of “I need a drink” and the idea of a time when one can drink, and think those are important even though I don’t get enjoyment out of alcohol and thus save my calories for elsewhere outside of ritual quantities. It’s weird that I can be in the state of “I need a drink” and still not want one; I appreciate the benefits other people get and want those benefits, but I know I wouldn’t get them. Plus, alcohol is kind of a terrible drug and cause of all life’s problems, so sitting non-symbolic quantities of this one out seems wise.

This is something I have to sacrifice to get. Work provides me with free and quite good lunch even if it can’t hold a candle to my wife’s cooking, but I don’t have the caloric budget to eat three meals in a day, so I have to both give up on a free lunch and I have to get through the day hungry. When I finally get home, I’m that much more appreciative, and I value my ritual, feast and rest that much more.

I think others can and should substitute other things (although I would still light the candles, and say some ritual words of your choosing), but that the idea of starting the Sabbath with a special indulgence that speaks to you is very important. Save something special to you for that slot in the week. Make sure it stands out.

III. Travel

An argument can be made that, while freedom to go anywhere would be a violation of freedom from choice and also feel a lot like work, being able to go places in accordance with plans seems valuable and reasonable, especially if you can take a train or bus with a monthly pass, or otherwise avoid spending money and avoid driving. I think it’s a reasonable stance to allow this for (and only for) plans made together with other people, but would still be cautious about that.

Being physically next to the people you care about, and the people you want to spend time with, is an important thing we have lost. Proximity, including being able to walk to each other and knock on the door, is important. Knowing your neighbors, or at least some of them, is important. I think it’s great that a bunch of people in The Bay are moving to the same street, even if I think the particular street isn’t in the best location. I hope they knock on each other’s doors all the time unannounced, and I hope lots of other people drop by all the time and let spontaneous things happen. That would be great.

I used to live in the same building as my good friend Alyssa, and that was pretty great. I would love to live that close to my friends again, and hope to coordinate such a thing here in New York at some point. Perhaps in a year or so. Giving people a strong extra incentive to do this, given they should be doing it anyway, seems very good. Not having this is an emergency situation and needs to be treated like one.

Right now, we’re kind of cheating, because we won’t travel but our friends mostly will, so they come to us. Those others who actually do keep the Sabbath, are exactly those we can’t see on Saturday. So that’s weird, and I don’t love it, but I think it’s a price worth paying.

IV. Screens

There is something obviously bad about screens, even when we can’t quite put our finger on exactly what it is. We can say things like ‘takes our focus away from where we are and what is happening’ but that doesn’t seem like it captures the true objection. Their demand for attention, the constant impulse to look at them even when you don’t want to, is definitely also a big factor. We’ve all heard the arguments. Certainly there should be a prejudice that things done with screens are more unshabbistic than things done without them, even when the thing being done is the same.

Despite that, screens have great utility and power, so we need to think hard about exactly what we’re doing and what effect it has. If you’re reading a Kindle, isn’t that basically reading a book? It sort of is, but it also sort of isn’t. It feels like you’re invoking something you shouldn’t be, it strains the eyes, it doesn’t give you physical control of what you’re doing in the same way, it can hold lots of books and thus implies choice you want to have freedom from. Your environment no longer is what it appears to be. Certainly the Kindle book is much less bad than most uses of screens, but it still feels like it should be strongly discouraged. Does this then mean a bunch of physical books that you don’t otherwise need? It might. Is that good or bad? I’m not sure, but I think it is good. By going digital perhaps we are trading for convenience at the expense of building a library (again, creating a home) and a connection to what we are reading. Having books around means books get read and thought about in a way a Kindle does not. The main advantage of a Kindle is that it allows the easy taking and sharing of notes but that is the least Shabbistic thing one can do with a book!

Computers and smart phones are highly dangerous, offering tons of choices and distractions and opportunities for the outside world to reach you. Phones are the worst, threatening each free moment. We’ve been trained to reach for our phones every spare moment, constantly comparing what we’re doing to what little distraction we could be looking at. They also let anyone reach you, and provide a world of resources and connection if you wanted it. I think it’s important to physically leave your phone behind on the Sabbath if there’s no pending emergency.

I have used computer for two purposes on the Sabbath, to write and to play video games. Writing is a special case. Playing video games can be relaxing, but it can also be a palliative and Skinner box you no longer enjoy that prevents you from taking stock. I realized that the game I’d been playing wasn’t something I was still enjoying that much; it had turned into work and stress, still with satisfaction and strategy but mostly I wanted to see how it ends and achieve victory – the joy of the journey was mostly dead. That doesn’t mean I don’t still want to finish, but it does mean it’s not Shabbistic.

V. Notifications

Sabbath proper begins with lighting candles. The ritual truly begins for me earlier than that, when I finish work: I turn email notifications off on my phone.

Notifications are tricky when you don’t want to be bothered, but still know you have the urge to check for new things. If you have notifications on, you’ll be interrupted every time you get notified, and that’s terrible. If you turn them off, the risk is that you’ll still worry there’s something waiting for you, and you’ll check anyway, even if there isn’t anything to see, and that’s even worse. So you only want to turn notifications off if you’ll actually be able to ignore the situation. The act of turning notifications off is my way of telling myself that it is time to start winding things down. I still have some preparations to do and several miles to travel, but as of now the world can wait.

Turning notifications back on, and checking my email, always feels like a mistake. I want to postpone it, knowing that once I look I’ll be drawn back in, and I keep meaning to move that to Sunday morning but keep not doing it. That is a sign of how bad things have gotten. How am I, indeed?

VI. Writing

Writing is important to me. Writing is how I figure things out for myself, and it’s value that I hope I am creating for others, and it’s part of the grand project that isn’t my career and isn’t my family, and that I’m hoping will actually matter. I have a lot of ideas running around in my head all the time, and working them out has strong intrinsic motivation. It is refreshing to me to work on that, and would greatly bother me not to. So for now, I do write on the Sabbath, even though it does seem suspiciously like work.

One result of this is that I am very careful to make sure that I’m not being compensated in any way for writing. If I was making money off this, it would so obviously be work I would have no excuse. It also might quickly destroy my intrinsic motivation. I am very worried about such things, and distortions of incentives to pay attention to numbers or incentive gradients rather than the things I have intrinsic motivation to work on. I’m meaning to write a post talking about the grave dangers of Karma systems to places like Less Wrong 2.0, because attaching numbers to things with rapid feedback is a deal with the devil and I’m quite worried the devil will end up winning. So an extra reason to keep on my toes about such things seems quite good, at least for now.

It comes down to, this is my day, and I need to do with it what I am driven to do – the very things that are under attack, and that I need my Slack in order to preserve. Otherwise, what was the point? But at some point this may reverse, and it will feel like pressure and work, and I hope I have the wisdom to change my rules to reflect this.

Note that I post my writing often on Saturday morning. That’s intentional. By timing my posts for Sabbath, I give everyone a full day to read and react before I have the chance to look at comments or votes or hits or anything else. That rabbit hole is bad, and I’m glad I have a way to avoid it.

VII. Football

Rationalists tend not to be sports fans. I think that’s a shame, for many reasons (that I hope to explain some time, but not now), but the key here is that I am the exception. Watching a good football game (Go Badgers!) is one of my great joys. However, it also involves television, and a giant array of possible games and lots of outside information running across the screen, so it’s dangerous. How to handle this?

My answer for now is that football is being somewhere, and being in the moment. That somewhere is elsewhere and that moment isn’t here, which are notches against. There is a screen involved, and that’s not great either. But sharing an experience with my fellow man of a story unfolding before us, of going through a ritual unique to the weekend where we celebrate the fruits of our hard work? Some friendly competition? That totally works for me. If I could walk to the stadium and hand them my (previously purchased) ticket, I wouldn’t bat an eye at that, it would be obviously great. If it was baseball, it would be even more obviously great, except that it wouldn’t be football, and also the Mets are awful.

So to the extent that I am moving forward in time and being in the moment, and watching a real-time story unfold as we journey through the season together, even if it is on tape delay, and to the extent that the games to watch have been chosen in advance (thus avoiding choice), I think this is fine. I think football (and College Gameday, which I enjoy the ritual of for reasons) are permissible and good in a way that most television would not be, and in a way that scripted dramas or comedies definitely would not be. It’s not a palliative, not in the same way, or at least it’s one I’m willing to allow.

A final good reason is that sports are cyclical. For five months we have football. For the remaining seven we don’t. That ensures we take a break.

Am I rationalizing and making excuses? Not impossible. It wouldn’t shock me if I realized this had to go and I moved my watching to Sunday.

Until then!

VIII. Alarm

There is a lot to be said for the strict version, where the rules are as they always have been. You don’t have to debate or choose or refine the rules, you only follow them. They do a very good job of forcing your hand, and of alerting you to how reliant you are on things you may not wish to be reliant on, allowing you to fix all that. Similarly, going camping without electronics is an eye opener, forcing your hand. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that both me and Ben Hoffman started our experiments after a camping trip.

For now, I’m going with the personalized hybrid version. I think that the act of thinking hard about what things I want to do without, what things I can do without, and what things I can’t do without, along with which things would enhance or degrade my experience, is exactly what will lead me to better understand how to handle these issues.

My worry is that this isn’t robust over time. Such a procedure requires buy-in, requires motivation. Customization means work. Traditions that survive need to survive for years and generations. If we are to form such a tradition, and I think that we should strive to do so, we will need it to be able to defend and pass itself down from father to son, from mother to daughter, to survive the constant pressures of the world. The constraint binds us, and we must consider it even now.

The first step, however, is still to take back our lives, protect ourselves to get to a place where we can think. This is one way that starts.