I imagine this has happened to you. (Spare me the embarrassment if it hasn't.)
You’re driving along the street. Your mind starts to wander. Suddenly, you look out the window, and you go,
“How did I get here?”
It is, literally, a transporting experience. You are now, like, blocks from where you last noticed where you were. And you have no conscious recollection of how you got there.
I wouldn’t have agreed with this back when I was failing an embarrassing number of Drivers’ Tests, but the physical act of driving is easy. You can virtually do it in your sleep. You can definitely do it while you’re daydreaming.
After a while – a longer while for some of us than for others – the act of driving a car transforms itself into an unconscious habit. I would say a harmless habit. Unless you run over a few people or beloved house pets while your mind happens to be “elsewhere.” But that’s pretty unlikely. The screams, squeals and bodies bumping against your car would almost certainly jolt you out of your reverie. Vehicular homicide is noisy.
Our lives are packed with habits. Walking is a habit. You learn to walk as a toddler and, barring any neurological misfortune, you don’t think it anymore. Imagine if you had to. The process of walking would monopolize your entire consciousness.
“Step with the foot…step with other foot…step with the first foot again…step with the other…. Wait! I forget where I wanted to go.”
Happily, our bodies take care of stuff like that. Our habitual behaviors become automatic. Sometimes, the behaviors become so automatic, you can double up on them. What’s multitasking? Doing two (or more?) things at the same time, because it doesn’t require your whole brain to negotiate either one.
“I just brushed my teeth and did my taxes at the same time. And there’s only a tiny spot of Crest on my 1040 Short Form.”
(WARNING: Your multitasking abilities decrease with age. Example: You’re in the kitchen, holding a cordless phone; you are about to call your brother in Toronto. Then, cordless phone in hand, you go to the fridge and you take out a jar of almond butter to put on the bread that you’re are toasting in your toaster oven. You put down the phone to unscrew the top of the almond butter jar. Having completed this task, you return to the phone, at which point you realize you have no idea who it was you were planning to call. You also forget you were making toast until the bread in the toaster oven catches on fire, setting off the smoke alarm. A little something for you kids out there to look forward to.)
There are good habits – I view “discipline” as one of those, though others may see the same behavior as “obsession”, which would make it a bad habit.
(WITH GENUINE ADMIRATION) “You write a blog post every day.”
(WITH GENUINE DISGUST) “You write a blog post every day!”
That’s interesting the way that works, don’t you think?
There are other habits towards which the responses are more uniform. Irritating habits. Like the jangling of keys. The jiggling of the leg. Fingers drumming on a tabletop. The interfacing of the forefinger and the nose. (Sorry.)
I have the habit of talking to myself. Nobody seems to like that. Except me. And only when I’m interesting.
That’s another thing about habits. They’re never irritating when they’re yours.
“My lips go ‘Pop! Pop! Pop!’ when I’m reading the paper. I don’t even notice I’m doing it.”
There are also generally agreed upon terrible habits. Like taking heroin. An addiction is a habit. They even call it a “heroin habit.” Though, to me, this trivializes a life-threatening behavior, placing it in the same category as an annoying Jewish fellow who insists on calling anyone younger than him boychick.
My final thoughts go to a certain kind of habit that you’re glad is available, because it carries you through highly specialized, often uncomfortable, situations.
For example, you’re attending a funeral, or visiting the home of the bereaved, and you hear yourself saying, “My deepest condolences.”
Isn’t that wonderful? In a moment of inexpressible grief, sitting on the bench, patiently waiting its opportunity to get into the game, there’s an officially sanctioned expression, an habituated “ritual word” appropriate to the occasion – and pretty much no other occasion – that anyone in need of its services can readily draw upon to help them successfully, if not memorably, navigate this difficult encounter.
As a result of the word “condolences”, the individual mourner is not pressed into coming up with “comfort words” of their own, which might, in retrospect, not have been up to the task.
“Dead, huh? That’s stupid.”
It’s a pressurized situation. We’re not always at our best. Fortunately, the habitual “C-word” is conveniently at our disposal, so we can “pay our respects”, scarf down some “shiva deli”, and take off, without causing the people suffering the loss any further pain, due to some spontaneous, albeit well-meaning, faux pas.
“Well…at least it wasn’t us.”
You say “condolences”, and you’re entirely in the clear.
I could sum up now as I usually do, but I think I’ll take a pass on that this time.
I don’t want you to think I’m a creature of habit.