Thursday, October 9, 2008

Creatures of habit

For the most part, the human being is a creature of habit. Intuitively, I’ve always known this, but now and then circumstances remind me how deeply programmed we are to stick with the routines that we are comfortable with and that make us feel in control and safe.

I observed the power that routine has over us a couple of years ago when I enrolled in a short story writing course. A number of tables were arranged to form an open square, with the instructor in the middle of the head table. Everyone else could sit where they chose. An older woman selected a spot near the instructor; later she mentioned that she has a hearing problem, so her choice was based on a reason. I sat in one of the chairs left when I came in without giving it much thought, as did everyone else, or so I assumed.

When I walked in the next week, however, those who had arrived earlier were sitting in the same seats as they had the week before, and those who followed headed without hesitation for their previous chairs. I made a comment about this and how I was determined to break the pattern every week. The reaction? A self-conscious, nervous titter and a few deprecating remarks. It was odd to see so many adults who couldn’t get past the assigned seating mentality of elementary school.

At work I’ve noticed the same behavior at meetings, whether the group is large (20 or more) or small (6). Each person gravitates to the same area of the table, and the same seat he or she always chooses if available. Some of this can be explained by social relationships—people who are friends herd together—but not all.

Lately two women who lunch together in the second-floor café have drawn my attention. The younger woman invariably faces east, the older woman west. I’ve yet to see them vary the pattern—a pattern of which they may not even be conscious.

Habit and routine—I suppose they are at least partly a reaction to the uncertainties of daily life. I may not know what kind of mood my boss will be in, but I can control my morning routine of coffee at 5:30 a.m. and shower at 6:00 a.m. I may be caught in traffic, but if I’m lucky I’ll get “my” spot. And at the end of the day I can sit in my place at my short story writing class. It’s there for me (unless Diane takes it).

Growing up, my understanding was that my father favored the Democratic party because he thought it favored the working man, while I was told my mother voted Republican because that’s what her father had done. (Yes, Mom voted for Richard Nixon.) Although some policies or postures may have interested them more than others—for example, my dad followed anything to do with Social Security—politically both were creatures of habit, voting less on specific issues of the time than in their personal comfort zones.

I suspect that’s exactly how most Americans vote—as much from habit as conviction. While the habit formed around the conviction, that’s what makes it that much harder to break the habit and periodically re-examine the convictions more critically. Emotionally, it’s like sitting in the same seat and using the same parking space. It’s comfortable, and nonthreatening. "Straight ticket" voting even makes it easy.

This year's election, however, seems to have thrown voters off. The unfriendly rivalry between Obama and Clinton left many of her supporters embittered. McCain isn't conservative enough for some, and his choice of Sarah Palin, her questionable suitability, and her political baggage have left some moderate Republicans shaking their heads and confiding to family and friends that this may be the year that they have to vote the other way. Change, even undefined change, is the new vision.

The habit of voting emotionally without thought or reflection is hard to recognize and harder to break without a compelling reason; smokers don't quit until they become short of breath, or their chest X-rays don't look right—and not even then. It's taken an expensive, now unpopular war, an economic crash, and a bleak outlook to rock our complacency. The "winner" will be left with the equivalent of a shattered chandelier, a glue stick, a ticking clock, and orders to "fix it." There are only two choices to perform the impossible. If there's any time to put aside our usual thought patterns and prejudices and to carefully consider who is more likely at least to pick up the pieces, this is that time.

Don't just punch. Think. Think hard. Think hard again. Think about the long term. And then punch.

Because how bright the future is depends on the choices we make. Don't make them from unthinking habit.


  1. Your writing is just what I need to help me motivate for my journal. In the meantime, I am setting it up along with my website so they can be ready before next year. So, you attend writing classes? What are they like? Do they help a lot?

    Oh and the elections for the American President seem unfair, I agree. If I was in America and a bit older, I would have liked to vote for Obama yet apparently McCain and Palin seem to be doing well, to my dislike.

  2. Hi, NyNy, thanks for stopping by and for the positive comments.

    I think some writing classes can be very helpful. The one I was in was not for me. I need help learning the basics of plotting (and getting over the idea I have no stories worth telling). The class focused on reading stories the instructor likes for certain reasons and which I didn't like at all. Plus, there was one person whose work and opinion were dominant, and he was critical of everyone, especially me, but not so much of himself. Funny how that works.

    I would say just keep writing and reading and reading others' work. More importantly, live life. Writing isn't so much about putting pretty words on paper as it is putting experiences into words and phrases that sing. I learned that living is more important than writing far too late in life.

    I try to not get too involved in politics, but what I find increasingly disturbing and disheartening are the labeling and the wedge driven down the middle. If you are moderate, you are not moderate but a "leftist" or worse. I don't believe extremism serves anyone well.