United Church of Christ

Extinction Behavior

"Like a dog returns to its vomit, so a fool repeats his folly." - Proverbs 26:11

Anyone who has ever trained a puppy or raised a child knows the power of consistency in engraining new behaviors or habits in them. And you also know how extremely discouraging it is when, after initially demonstrating genius in mastering the art of, say, pooping in the potty, your toddler suddenly regresses to pooping beside the potty, or in the new big boy unders, or holding it for three days straight. Just as things seem to be getting better, they suddenly get a whole lot worse.

This is known as an extinction burst: an increase in negative behavior just before it disappears. 

American society has been experiencing an uptick in openly racist, misogynistic, xenophobic, homophobic, and transphobic behaviors in public and out loud. Perhaps the animus was already there and is just now being revealed, emboldened by the words and deeds of public leaders. Perhaps we are in for a long run of hatefulness, one that will even be enshrined in law.

Or perhaps (let's imagine!) this sudden uptick is extinction behavior, a last flirtation with a beloved bad habit, a fool returning to his folly, a dog returning to his vomit, as Proverbs so pungently puts it. Perhaps, the fact that things are getting worse means that we are finally coming into a dawning understanding of God's best hopes for Her growing-up children. 

Our Mama God clearly set the terms for spiritual maturity in the words of Jesus: "Love your neighbor. Welcome the stranger. Give all your money to the poor." God is supporting us in growing up, and into the next age and stage: an age of dignity, respect, rights, equality and justice for every child of God.

Prayer

God, growth and change is scary. It creates tension in the Body: resistance between the part of us that wants to stay in diapers and the part that wants to wear big kid pants. Loving Parent, be firm, loving and consistent with us as we deal with the anxieties of this age.

About the Author
Molly Baskette is Senior Minister of the First Church of Berkeley, California, and the author of the best-selling Real Good Church and Standing Naked Before God.

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