Sabbath Commentary

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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.