In our family we begin meals, as many families do, by sharing in grace together: we begin when everyone is around the table and holding hands; then we say our grace aloud together, giving thanks for the nourishment, for one another, and for all our many blessings. At the conclusion of grace we raise our hands and emphatically say, AMEN!
On occasions when one of us—usually my wife or me finishing one last thing—is detained, the rest of the gathered group holds off saying the final Amen. The group sings aloud AAAAAAAAAA… until the missing person final completes the circle, when we can all grab hands, raise them in the air and emphatically complete the long anticipated conclusion….AAAAAAAAMEN!
Our kids love this part of the routine, probably because they are empowered by the routine (yes, to sing the long, loud AAAAA) to be gate-keepers of our shared routines. Once, after a few meals of less than enthusiastic AMENs! our youngest daughter, then age 3, wondered aloud, “Why don’t we say AMEN like we used to?”
This isn’t a piece designed to get you to say grace—although, I think regardless of your faith or worldview it’s a mistake not to be mindful of every gift in our lives and to take nothing for granted. But this is a piece about the importance of our routines. In the book, <em>Routines for Our Times,</em> the authors argue “Every time we participate in a ritual [routine], we’re expressing our beliefs.” Rituals and routines, habits or norms, our shared way—culture.
Consider the simple case study of our family routine for beginning meals: our ritual expresses our beliefs about faith, family, and fun. We all hold hands because it may be the precious few seconds in a day when we physically touch those we love. We give thanks for our nourishment and for those who prepared it. We offer our enthusiastic AMEN from our religious values and traditions where it connotes firm, faithful, exuberant agreement, but also to simply shake us from the dangers of an unmindful, ungrateful, monotony to one of enthusiasm, celebration, and shared belief. The AMEN also reflects our family’s shared love of simply being loud, goofy, and fun-loving. It’s a simple but significant routine in the life of our family.
Our routine for beginning meals is not better or worse than any other routine; there are countless purposeful routines for beginning meals. But I would argue that it fits us (that is, is aligned with our values) and expresses our beliefs. This routine shapes, renews, and challenges us to live our deepest values. Even our three-year old daughter knew we were losing something essential when we had lost our enthusiastic AMEN. Her excitement for and belief in our routine inspired her to challenge the rest of us to stop going through the motions.
I have had to coach up our kids when they began to use the hand holding as a time to check on who had NOT washed their hands. I put my foot down and passionately teach, “Hey folks, listen up: first, wash your hands before you come to the table. That’s disgusting. Second, remember what we’re doing here: this is a time to connect to one another and to be mindful of our gifts. This is important. Do it the right way. Do it our way.”
Bottom line: our routines both REFLECT and REINFORCE our values. Rituals and routines matter deeply, since, as we have argued so many times before: Culture (our shared norms and habits) shapes character (values in action). If we lose sight of what we do and why we do it we are in danger of expressing and reinforcing what is likely counter to our espoused or desired values. As Tom Lickona put so simply and powerfully: “we must practice what we preach, but we must also preach what we practice.”
I have been reflecting lately in earnest on the ways in which my personal routines (for prayer, for fitness, for creative work, for busy work, for rejuvenation and relationships) contribute to or detract from my values and goals. I am constantly reflecting on the routines for our team at IEE, for the teams I coach, for the boards I serve on. IEE’s Culture of Excellence and Ethics Tools are research-based strategies for shaping intentional culture around attitude, effort, communication, negotiation, etc.—basically any skill or behavior that indviduals need for efficiently and effectively working and living together.
I am constantly surprised by the power of intentional routines: proactive, positive, shared organizational habits are absolutely transformative. I’m equally surprised by the damage incurred by unintentional routines. Remember, if we don’t define the rituals and routines then they’re up for grabs, and when it’s all up for grabs you simply get what you get.
I recommend that we all take some time and begin to reflect on our rituals and routines. Do they express our espoused values? Do we remember how and why we do what we do? Are our routines contributing to or detracting from our deepest values? If we talk about faith, family, and fun why does dinner reflect and reinforce something totally opposite?
So what if you, your family, class, team or company has forgotten, or never knew or even had intentional routines? Don’t despair. It’s never too late to get intentional. And, as the saying goes, “there’s no such thing as justice, there’s just us.” If you don’t like how we do things, then let’s fix it, change it, reshape it, remake it. And if it’s still not quite right, then revise it again. Because here’s a little secret: the process is the intervention! It is in and through discussions of what we do and why we do it that we also reflect and reinforce our shared values. You’re never going to get perfect rituals and routines. They’re living, breathing, evolving entities that reflect and reinforce, support and challenge us. It’s all about discovering, uncovering, and recovering intentionality.
Intense and intentional culture reflects and reinforces the character and culture needed to truly achieve our unique potential. With something as important as our routines, don’t guess or assume, hope or pray; instead, establish, reinforce, remind, and recreate anew—get intentional.