Once upon a time, I achieved something to be proud of: I quit chewing my nails.
This may not seem like much of an accomplishment, but I was a true hard-core chewer. As soon as enough fresh nail emerged to bite on, I would start nibbling away at it. Since our teeth are not designed to create a nice clean edge, I would inevitably leave behind an uneven, raggedy thing that would proceed to snag on everything. Which, of course, would lead me to yet more nibbling, trying to clean up those annoying little serrations. This would continue until I reached the quick, which would underline my unwisdom by hurting like hell. Often enough, even that wouldn’t stop me, and I would actually draw blood. This would take days to heal (assuming, of course, that I didn’t keep working at it and make it worse), leaving me with a surprisingly tender spot to bump into things with.
Clearly, this was one of the most bone-headed habits one can imagine. It bought a little short-term satisfaction and a whole lot of long-term negative feedback. On a logical basis, it was just the sort of bad habit that should have been easy to break.
Truth is, when I finally decided to stop, I was amazed at how hard it was. I would carefully file my nails as short and as clean as possible. Then, usually when I should have been paying attention to something else, I would notice some little rough spot or a bit of a hangnail. My fingers would play with it, inevitably making it worse, while my hand developed a compulsion to move toward my mouth. I would literally sit on my hands, but if my mind wandered away for just a second, I would discover a finger had somehow magically appeared in my mouth, with my teeth already nibbling away.
I remember how much effort and concentration it took for me to stop. When the urge was rising, my desire to do this fundamentally trivial and stupid-to-the-point-of-self-destructiveness thing became an obsession, taking all my effort not to give in to it. I eventually succeeded in breaking the habit, but it was a great lesson in just how powerful human habits can be.
I should mention I was in the fifth grade at the time.
But it is not the evils of habituation that I wanted to talk about. Instead, let’s look at the other side.
For instance, I am not one of those people who wake up at the crack of dawn, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed. Given my druthers, I’d get up much later and a whole lot slower. I discovered years ago that even when I have pried myself out of bed, a substantial portion of my psyche is still dead asleep. About the only thing that allows me to cope is the fact that I can robot my way through a considerable part of the morning.
I can get up, make coffee, and even shower and shave in a happy state of somnambulism. I can select an outfit, toast a muffin, and get a fair distance into the newspaper before I even start to really wake up. Part of me may have to accept the brutal jump out of bed, but another part insists on a more leisurely, gentle approach to consciousness. Truth to tell, I am frightened at how often I have gotten to work with no very clear memory of the drive.
Of late, however, I’ve noticed that my habits are not so reliable as they might be. Some little disruption in the routine can cause ripples. For instance, if I have to rescue a spider from my shower before I turn on the water, it can completely throw me off pattern. I have actually found myself standing under the water thinking, “Let’s see. What do I do first?”
And the discombobulation can last. Having figured out how to take a shower without forgetting to wash any vital parts, I’ve noticed still being off rhythm in the shaving and toothpaste part of the ablutions. Not exactly skipping steps, but pausing occasionally to be sure of what’s next.
And it can get worse. There is a drive I take often, returning late. Apparently they have modified part of the route in such a way that a vital visual clue of mine has been deleted. Twice now I have been driving along, my mind happily engaged elsewhere, only to wake up and realize I’ve passed the turn to my own freeway without even noticing it. Now that’s scary.
Point, I guess, is this: We mostly think about all our bad habits and how much happier and better we would be if we could just break them. Maybe so, but maybe not.
Maybe habits are also blessed gifts that keep us from having to consciously think out every bloody step of our lives. After my fifth grade triumph about nail-biting, I was sure I could break any habit I ever acquired. Alas, that may be too true.
Be careful what you wish for.