Beeminding Rituals

Thursday, December 4, 2014
By Leah Libresco

Some kind of bee goddess in a flower

This is a guest post by Leah Libresco, an avid Beeminder user for over two years, who blogs about religion, ethics, and rationality at Unequally Yoked. Her first book, Arriving At Amen: Seven Catholic Prayers that Even I Can Offer, debuts May 2015 and includes a lot of tools for understanding and practicing religion — everything from Beeminder to ballroom dance.

There’s something a little weird for me, intuitively, about beeminding parts of my spiritual life. After all, in Romans 12:19, it is written “Vengeance is mine; I will repay, saith the Lord.” So, if I turn to Beeminder to keep track of my prayer practices, am I introducing an unnecessary (or worse yet, idolatrous!) enforcement middleman?

Prayer is supposed to come from the heart, so is there something weird about graphing it and setting up my own penalties if I don’t measure up?

My answer is, yes, it’s a bit weird, but so is most of my prayer life. I’m a convert, so I’ve had to pick up prayer as a second language, but, even for people who are raised religious, spiritual life is a process of growth, which means it tends to include a lot of awkward stages. I’ve found it useful to “cheat” a number of ways in my prayer life, from seeking out opportunities to pray in community (where I feel more natural and less self-conscious) to praying while walking on my commute (the one reliable fixed point in my schedule). Beeminder is one of a number of hacks I’ve used to help me get over initial resistance to a new ritual or habit.

“I would be teed off at God for my own poor planning.”

Beeminder carries some particular pitfalls, though. Any time I set up a pledge, if I wind up resenting the little reminders I get from the Beeminder Bot, I don’t want to “solve” my problem by just upping my pledge until the pain of the monetary loss exceeds the pain of keeping my promise. When I pull that kind of trick, I wind up feeling angry at Beeminder and myself (much like the employee of a boss who thinks ‘motivation’ consists of “Do it in half the time, or you’re fired”). So my biggest concern wouldn’t be using Beeminder to “cheat” and pray when I wouldn’t have natually — it would be using it to commit to something I wasn’t ready for, and then being teed off at God for my own poor planning.

That’s why I think Beeminder works best for habits I’ve tried out before, that I know are worth the effort. For me, that might be something like lectio divina (a special practice of spiritual reading and meditation). When I do do lectio divina, I tend to get a lot out of it, but I’m not very good at making time for it. It feels like something I’m doing for myself, whose timing is more flexible than socializing, work, laundry, etc, so it always winds up getting short shrift. Beeminding a period of lectio each week wouldn’t wind up forcing me to make time for this reading — it would permit me to, because now it wouldn’t feel like lectio always had to yield before other scheduling commitments. [1]

(This strategy worked great for me when I started beeminding my bedtime as an Advent discipline. Before I started using Beeminder, I had trouble exiting late night conversations, but “Sorry, I have to log off or Beeminder will charge me $5” tended to satisfy all my friends.)

“Beeminder wouldn’t wind up forcing me, it would permit me.”

Ultimately, I don’t feel any worse about using Beeminder to stay on track with a prayer practice than I do about the period in which I was using Remember the Milk (RTM) to send me little reminders to talk to my brother periodically. It would sure be preferable to be the kind of person who had the impulse to reach out to God (or my brother) naturally, because it was so much a part of me that the impulse rose as unconsciously as hunger, that it was the lack of communication, not the performance of it, that felt unnatural.

And that may well wind up happening, but, if it does, I expect it will be partly because I used Beeminder and other automated tools to help me lower the activation energy of starting a new habit. After all, beeminded prayer practices, like RTM-instigated phone calls, just force me to make time for a conversation. What I wind up saying to God is still (gulp) up to me.


Additional thoughts from Leah on her blog.



[1] Editor’s note: This is a profound point, similar to one we’ve made before about beeminding hobbies. As Bethany Soule put it:

Maybe I should be cleaning the bathroom or folding laundry, for some values of should. But it turns out those are usually pretty stupid values of should and if I have an emergency craft day, well, I conveniently planned last week that crafting would be the most urgent and important thing today. I can sit down without guilt and spend 25 minutes knitting because I want to and because I have to.

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