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Creatures of Habit

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Do We Really Choose How We Live Our Lives?

By Fred Wistow

With my right foot planted firmly on the floor and my left heel just barely off the ground, my body leans slightly to the right when I pee.

Newly awakened to this startling discovery, I notice that whatever remaining weight the left foot still supports has been transferred to the toes there. (The function of those toes seems to be less about bearing weight than it is about maintaining my equilibrium.)

My pants. I put them on . . . well, let’s see, how do I put them on? That’s right, invariably, left leg first. Shirts? Invariably, right sleeve first. Teeth? Invariably upper-left outside first, then moving across the upper-front to the upper-right side, then . . . well, take my word for it, without my walking you through the whole thing, there’s a fixed and, yes, invariable pattern whenever a toothpaste-bearing brush enters my mouth.

These habits I have—why “invariable”? Why the left leg and not the right? Why the upper-left outer (or as my dentist calls it, “buccal”) side and not the lower-right “lingual”? Was I taught somewhere along the line to behave this way? Is being a righty at the core of it all? Does the fact my left leg was injured years ago affect any of this? Does laziness play a part? Am I yearning for security through familiarity, a shield against the unknown? Or is there just no answer to why?

While the specific steps I follow in how I piss or dress or brush appear to be as thought-free—as mindless—as the erratic throbbings of an amoeba, the daily decision to engage in these everyday acts in the first place is somewhat more conscious. I say “somewhat” because—while I am mostly aware of the impulse to initiate each of them, and while each day I more or less decide when exactly it’ll be that I perform them—once I do commence doing these things, the routine that kicks in is as rigid and inflexible, as seemingly automatic, as the repetitive motions programmed into a robotic device on any assembly line anywhere.

But, of course, that can’t be the whole story.

Take, as a counterexample, my heart. My heart beats and beats and beats and is going to go on beating and beating and beating and beating, without my slightest intervention, until that inevitable moment comes when it will stop. Permanently.

Here’s another one: my lungs. My lungs will likewise soldier on, thanklessly doing their indispensable job for the same amount of time. They, like so many of my physiological processes, truly are automatic. Without requiring a moment’s thought, without any choice involved, they allow my very being to exist. If anything can be described as “thought-free,” they certainly can.

In contrast, though, to my purely biological functioning, the remainder of my waking life transpires (allegedly) in the land of consciousness. While so much of how I behave as I make my way through my daily routines may, in retrospect, appear to be similarly thought-free, on closer inspection, I see that’s not the case. I do, at various rare and random moments, enlist a modicum of consciousness to carry out what at first blush appears to be my trancelike behavior. What initially appear to be invariable routines really aren’t; they’re simply unvaried. These behaviors aren’t as irremediably fixed as my inattention has allowed them to become. As conscious acts, they’re subject to change and, therefore, I can change them.

Can’t I?

I experiment, starting with pissing.

As I start to play with this (how I stand, I mean), and plant both feet flat on the ground, I notice an indescribable momentary inner readjustment to the urinary flow, but then, I’m extremely relieved to observe, the process resumes, as it always has in the past, as it may (please!) continue to do so in the future.

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