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Force of habit

Larry D. Moore

I know what might happen later this morning if I’m not careful. I will drive to the local pond, feed the ducks, and head back to the village where I will park outside the post office, walk up to the door, and find it locked. Then I will remember what I should never have forgotten — that today is Memorial Day.

By the time we reach a certain age most of us are guided through life by an inner automatic pilot. We call it force of habit, and it really is a force. The daily visit to the post office is not something I plan or choose to do, it just happens. The car almost goes there by itself and no doubt, in the coming age of automation, it will go there by itself, whether I like it or not.

Habits give us the charming illusion that we are in charge of our own lives — an illusion that is instantly shattered when the routine is interrupted. That’s why some people find vacations so stressful. Even a tiny disruption can be unsettling.

The closed door of the post office is like a stick suddenly placed in the path of an ant. What shall I do now? Without the mail to look and complain over (all bills again) there will be an unanticipated gap in my morning routine. Maybe I will extend my walk to explore a new part of the nature reserve. But breaking habits is risky. I could trip on a branch, break a leg, and wreck my entire routine for weeks ahead.

There are of course special habits for special holidays — the family visiting on Thanksgiving for example, the midnight vigil at New Year, the fireworks on Independence Day and so on. These help to fill the gap when normal routines are disrupted. But it’s the daily and weekly habits that keep us going and give us a sense that we are on track, even if we don’t quite know where the track is leading. People dedicated to fitness seem to follow almost fanatical routines of daily self-torture in pursuit of some distant goal of physical perfection, but most of us are just trying to get through the day.

Habits are useful, not only because they help us to ignore the chaos at the heart of the universe and get things done, but also because they prevent us from acts that might have unpredictable consequences. A large percentage of the trouble in the world is caused by young people, mostly young men, who have nothing to do and no daily routine of post office visits and medical appointments to keep their chaotic impulses under control. This why youth is such an agitated time, a perennial search for distraction.

Older people tend to be more “set in their habits.” Continuous distraction is no longer desirable, or necessary. Each day will take care of itself. Everything is boring, or nothing is.

Here’s a most ingenious paradox. Habits are good because they give us a safe, orderly life. Habits are bad because they lock us into an unthinking routine and inhibit our creativity and sense of adventure. We need to find a balance, to push back against the tyranny of habit, but not so hard as to throw our lives into chaos. I’ll go to the post office tomorrow.

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.