Thursday, July 22, 2010


It will not take much reading for you to discover that this post is simply a less entertaining version of yesterday’s post, though, hopefully, only slightly less entertaining.

I see this issue as a mighty tributary to my Mississippi of concerns – the Search for Truth. The issue is “regularity” and its stranglehold on our beliefs and our behavior. I reiterate yesterday’s post, but without Galileo, his neighbor and his dog. To be clear, the neighbor’s dog, not Galileo’s. Though, if you’d read yesterday’s post, you would know that already.

I can structure this reiteration in various ways:

The Sitcom Reiteration

Another writer told me this story. He was in a rewrite session for a quite good half-hour comedy, albeit one uninterested in breaking any new sitcomical ground. The writer reported that he pitched a joke, to which the other writers in the room responded with uncontrollable laughter. When the hilarity died down, the show runner, who would decide whether the writer’s joke would be included in the script, pronounced his decision:

“It’s funny. But I never heard it before. So we’re not going to do it.”

An odd decision, perhaps lacking in audacity, but it’s entirely understandable. The show runner had within him an inviolable sense of “regularity”, determining exactly what he was comfortable with. The joke he had never heard before made the show runner uncomfortable. So out it went.

The winner: “Regularity” over hilarity.

The Anatomical Reiteration

(WARNING: If you’re averse to poopocentric material, I’d skip down a little.)

Pain medication affects “regularity”, a concept popularized in laxative commercials, and the situation I am gracelessly referring to here. During my recovery from heart surgery, they poured on the pain medication. At my whimpering request. As a result, my “regularity” became “irregular”, to the point of non-existence.

Did it hurt? No. Did it alter my wellbeing? No. Did it upset me? Very much. It upset me by its absence. I wanted my “regularity” back.

My “regularity” defined me as a person. As Descartes might alternately have said: “I poop; therefore, I am.” Not pooping (and fearing I would never poop again) – I was not totally myself. I was substandard “me.”

It was clear that this feeling was not one of those “just me” situations. At Cardiac Rehab, I overheard a Rehabber who was beginning the program respond to the question, “What do you hope to achieve from this program?” by replying, with a revealing urgency, “I just want to get back to normal.”

“Getting back to normal.” Returning to that reassuring “regularity” – in his case, a return to a previous condition rather than a bathroom concern, but it’s the same impulse underneath. There’s nothing dramatic about this condition. When “regularity’s” on the job, it’s almost unnoticeable. It’s like the milk in your refrigerator. You know the milk’s okay when it smells like nothing. That’s “good milk’s” “Indicator of Regularity.” It smells like nothing.

It’s the same with “regularity.” It feels “right” when you feel nothing at all. When it’s absent, there’s this visceral drive for its return.

Am I talking about habit here? In a way, I guess. But, to me, “habit” is the “outside” expression of this powerful, inner impulse. I don’t know you, I know me, or at least the conscious part of me, though even there, the picture’s far from complete. What I know about myself is the intense need “regularity” plays in my everyday life.

I won’t recite the whole list; it’s embarrassing. One representative example: I’ve been eating the same breakfast cereal for thirty-five years – Spoon-Sized Shredded Wheat: “No sugar; it stays crunchy in milk.” Do I love Spoon-Sized Shredded Wheat? Not that much anymore. Sometimes, facing yet another bowl of it makes me queasy.

Have I tried other breakfast cereals? On occasion. But thirty-five years of my “regular cereal” means no alternate cereal has a chance. I may not love Spoon-Sized Shredded Wheat, but I have this overpowering need to keep eating it. An experimental substitute of Simply Fiber, and it’s like, “Can we get serious, please?”

Sometimes, the origin of the “regular” behavior is entirely misunderstood. I remember hearing a story about a woman who always roasted her Thanksgiving turkey in pot that was clearly too small for the size of the bird. The woman’s explanation? “That’s the way my mother did it, and it was always delicious.” Finally, the mother was consulted as to why she always cooked her turkeys in a little pot. Her reply: “It was the only pot we had.”

Call them habits. Call them “idiosyncrasies” when they’re stupid. These things are pretty much “no harm – no foul.” Nobody’s hurt – unless you’re a claustrophobic turkey – so who really cares?

The difficulty comes with the “habits of the mind”, where the insistent need for “regularity” leads to holding on to certain longstanding beliefs, the intensity of that need reflected by the red-hot reaction when those beliefs are challenged. See: Yesterday’s post. Or the following summary:

GALILEO: “I understand that your ‘regular’ belief has long been that the sun revolves around the earth. Consider, however, that my replacement belief – that the earth revolves around the sun – will, in know time, become your new “regular” belief. Plus, it has the valuable advantage of actually being true.”

THE PEOPLE OF HIS TIME: “Shut up, or we’re burning you at the stake.”

It’s not just a “back then” phenomenon. The behavior persists. Everywhere. “We never had government-sponsored health care before, and we don’t want it” is remarkably similar to “I’ve never heard that joke before, so we won’t do it.” It’s the same kind of thinking, driven by an unreasoning intensity that almost turned Galileo into a “S’more.” And has people toting firearms to political rallies today.

The truth – even the mere search for truth – obliterated by the soothing comfort of “regularity.”

This one stumps me.

And I’m scared.

1 comment:

James said...

Yes, people are skeptical or fear the unknown, and are comforted by the known and regular.

Far of the new can work for you, too. I've been trying to change my lifestyle and avoid diabetes, which runs in my family. I've never had diabetes before, but I still don't want it.