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David Bouchier: The Habit Of Habit

My wife has been reading a book about habit. I hope this has nothing to do with me, because I prefer to think of myself as a man without habits. Every day is a new adventure, once I have had my coffee and cereal and apple juice and looked at the paper and listened to Morning Edition. But I was shaken out of my complacency earlier this year when we arrived in France and went to our usual village market. My feet carried me automatically to a stall selling bread, the seller glanced up, handed me a greasy pastry treat called a Fougasse without a word and I handed him one Euro and thirty five centimes. I hadn’t been in this market or seen this man for almost nine months, but it seems that in past visits I had established something that might almost be called a Friday morning habit. So I determined to abandon this unhealthy indulgence, skip the high-cholesterol pastry in future, and have some nice crunchy cereal instead. If this was a test of character I failed, and ate those delicious pastries every Friday for the rest of the summer.

Most of us are slaves to habit, and there are reasons for it. Habits not only help us to ignore the chaos at the heart of the universe and get things done, but also they prevent us from doing impulsive things that might have dangerous consequences. In Victorian times, to call someone “A man of regular habits” was a serious compliment. Every sensible woman wanted to marry a man of regular habits. They might be boring but they tended not to become suicide bombers, or gamblers, or risk-takers of any kind.

When a lot of people share the same habit it takes on an extra dimension and becomes a custom or a ritual, like going to church or watching the Super Bowl or the Pledge of Allegiance. It can become a gentle tyranny, so nobody dares to ignore it, or it can become a harmless source of identity for a whole group of people who might otherwise forget who they are. Or, of course, it can be both.

We were in France one year on November fifth when a whole group of local British residents got together in a field to celebrate the curious ritual of Guy Fawkes’s day, which involves burning the effigy of a seventeenth century terrorist on a bonfire and setting off fireworks. Outsiders have no idea what this is all about, but they’re not supposed to. It’s a ritual performed only by the British, and they have to do it on November fifth.

Thanksgiving is just such a national ritual, reassuring on the one hand and compelling on the other, part comfort and part gentle tyranny. Ready or not, we have to do it. It is also equally incomprehensible to outsiders which makes it special. What is this unlikely tale about Indians and turkeys, foreigners ask? What is the Thanksgiving Day parade really all about? Where and why does Norman Rockwell come into it?

Habits and rituals like this offer some stability in an unstable world. They give us the charming illusion that we are in charge of our own lives, and that we do know who we are. This is something worth preserving, right down to the last turkey sandwich.

Have a very Happy Thanksgiving.

Copyright: David Bouchier

David began as a print journalist in London and taught at a British university for almost 20 years. He joined WSHU as a weekly commentator in 1992, becoming host of Sunday Matinee in 1996.