Habit

Bill-newby L. G. William Chapman, B.A., LL.B.

Habit is the poor cousin of tradition and ritual.  Its career has forever been undistinguished.  At its worst habit is an addiction; at its best it is a custom. Normally it is a routine. Habit carries with it the suggestion of lack of self-analysis and maybe even obsession.  It is seldom associated with dynamism or creativity; it tends to be characterized by a fixed way of thinking, one which generally abhors novelty or change.  There are however good habits, such as daily exercise or eating properly. Those habits obscure the unconscious element of repetitive behaviour and are redeemed as active choices. Normally habitual behaviour is not associated with great minds unless of course the habit is Bohemian like sleeping late, chain smoking, excessive drinking, lustfulness and general failure to observe deadlines and commitments, the offbeat social habits of an artist’s drafty-garret existence.

Some habits are just worth keeping.  They provide a tried and tested experience which pays dividends every time it is repeated. There is already enough unpredictability in the world. Why live in a state of constant turmoil and risk spoiling a good thing? Granted habit can remove the necessity of contemplation but so what?  Especially if the habit is directed to a relatively inconsequential enterprise such as what you eat for breakfast.  Or the type of scotch whiskey you drink. Or the cars your drive.

Other habits are simply good practice, like flossing and brushing your teeth and other personal hygiene habits, making your bed every morning, visiting your physician, dentist and chiropractor, reviewing a checklist of documents and due diligence, polishing your shoes and calling your mother.  At other times habits are preposterous, like a particular way of folding your laundry, setting the table or parking your car.  These psychopathic peculiarities were epitomized by Jack Nicholson as the misanthropic, homophobic, racist, obsessive-compulsive novelist in the movie “As Good As It Gets“. He avoids stepping on sidewalk cracks while walking through the city due to a superstition of bad luck, and eats breakfast at the same table in the same restaurant every day using disposable plastic utensils he brings with him due to his pathological mysophobia.

Some people on the other hand are obsessed with change, having constantly to do something different as though salvation were to come from perpetual diversity and unfamiliarity.  While it is certainly less glamorous to talk about habit than innovation, habit may however capture a deeper philosophic truth that generally speaking there is really nothing new in the world in spite of superficial change.  You will have to travel a very long way to remove yourself from the suburbs of your own mind. The obsession with change may become its own bad habit, echoing a deeper abnormality regarding fear of stagnancy and impending mortality.

Most habits are tolerated as the personal predilections of another. Where those preferences translate into dislikes which affect others, the going is less understandable and may become toxic. Recall for example the debate about how to eat a boiled egg as satirized by Jonathan Swift in the 1726 novel “Gulliver’s Travels“.  If the criticism of habit encroaches upon what others have dignified as long-established belief or solemn ceremony it is destined to be a mine field fraught with danger.  Bigotry elevates its idiosyncrasies to the height of historical convention.  It would be considered disdainful to relegate prejudice to mere habit.

Allow me to share with you a collection of opinions by others:

“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit.”
– Aristotle

“The chains of habit are too weak to be felt until they are too strong to be broken.”
― Samuel Johnson

“Motivation is what gets you started. Habit is what keeps you going.”
― Jim Ryun

“The truth is that everyone is bored, and devotes himself to cultivating habits.”
― Albert Camus, The Plague

“A man who can’t bear to share his habits is a man who needs to quit them.”
― Stephen King, The Dark Tower

“Some rules are nothing but old habits that people are afraid to change.”
― Therese Anne Fowler, Souvenir

“The only way we could remember would be by constant re-reading, for knowledge unused tends to drop out of mind. Knowledge used does not need to be remembered; practice forms habits and habits make memory unnecessary. The rule is nothing; the application is everything.”
― Henry Hazlitt, Thinking as a Science

“A nail is driven out by another nail; habit is overcome by habit.”
― Desiderius Erasmus

“The fixity of a habit is generally in direct proportion to its absurdity.”
― Marcel Proust

“Habits are patterns, and even the smallest ones tell a lot about who you are as a person.”
― Jarod Kintz, This Book Title is Invisible

“Habit is habit, and not to be flung out of the window by any man, but coaxed down-stairs one step at a time.” ― Mark Twain