I know, I know . . . puns are cheap gags. But, like cliches, they generally have a grain of truth or we wouldn’t recognise them. So I’m going to continue in the same vein (there I go again) and see where I get.
Starting from the assumption that I’m not actually addicted to any harmful substances, why am I sounding off about habits this week?
Habits are comfortable, they allow us to live without thinking about every moment. Get up, shower, brush your teeth, dress, breakfast (if you do that thing) check weather, select appropriate outer garments, leave house: we can do all these things on auto-pilot and indeed – if you’re anything like me – we are sometimes only jolted into awareness that we are even doing them when something goes wrong. When you reach the crossroads that leads to the office and remember you’re going to a client meeting; when you’re dressed for the office and register that it’s Saturday; when you switch on the radio and realise you forgot to turn the clocks back/forward.
It can be the same with relationships. The morning greeting, the home time peck on the cheek, the casual acceptance that he shops, cooks, cleans every day while she sees to the decorating every two years and gardening once a week (did I get that one right?), the nightly companionable bottle of wine, the routine sexual encounters, the still more routine grumbles and rumbling dissatisfaction that never comes to a head, the endless round of school runs and homework checks and laundry and no-one ever remembering to buy toilet paper until the emergency box of tissues is almost gone. Habits stretch from the pleasurable to the just-grin-and bear-it.
And then, what? So often, nothing. In Hobbes’ depressing words the natural trend – habit – of things is for life to be “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short”. Sometimes an external shock is delivered. A threat such as illness or redundancy/poverty causes the parties to re-evaluate and perhaps find reason to metaphorically start again, injecting a little fresh energy into their systems. Equally, such threats can lead to the dissolution of what has ceased to be a relationship and is merely a collection of habitual behaviours. One party is attracted to another and they really start again under the illusion that things will be different this time.
I was told a very depressing fact last week. Of 1,000 people told by their doctors that certain changes (diet, smoking, behaviour, exercise etc.) will help to prolong their life expectancy only 1 will have stuck to the necessary changes after 12 months have elapsed. Inertia will have triumphed. (As any fool with a passing acquaintance with Newtonian mechanics might have predicted, but as this fool with a preference for Rousseau’s belief in the perfectibility of man finds very surprising and sad.)
So let’s just rewind a few paragraphs here. Habits, I suggested, “allow us to live without thinking about every moment”. Why would that be a good idea? There are people, it is true, whose lives are genuinely so nasty, brutish and short that I can only imagine their whole existence is a struggle to get through from one minute to the next and anything that relieves or deadens that pain is good. For the majority of people in the prosperous west that simply isn’t the case. Most of us have lives that are the envy of many nations and yet we have become so calloused to our good fortune that we drift through our one precious life without thought or appreciation.
Time is short, and human response to that varied. Some choose hedonism and enjoy every pleasure without thought for consequence. (Sadly, their damaged livers, STDs and cocaine noses have somehow become communal responsibilities.) Others strive for perfection in whatever area they most value. (Somehow, their sports injuries and so forth are more acceptable public costs.) The majority, it seems, just put up with it, “muddle along” as the expression has it, live without seeming to do so and cushion themselves through habit and comfort against consciousness and sharp experience.
It’s time to remember complexity and choice.
“Ars longa, vita brevis” apparently – thank you, Wikipedia – is a mere extract (and with a shifted emphasis at that) from an aphorism by Hippocrates, the first person we recognise as a doctor. His full text said
“Life is short
And Art long,
And decision difficult”
Did I say it was going to be easy? But to wring every last perilous, difficult, chosen experience from this one short life, you really need to kick your habits, before you kick the bucket.