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Creatures of Habit - Page 2

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Inspired and curious, I next move on to scramble the order in which I dress myself and then do the same with the well-established sequence in which I clean my teeth. While it’s surprisingly unsettling to go against these grains of history, I discover . . . that I can. The power I feel isn’t quite Herculean, but it’s palpable.

How many other aspects of my life, I wonder—habits performed on autopilot, seemingly fixed and unchanging, yet waiting for some effort to upend and overthrow them—share in this faux automatism? Plenty.

Plenty more wherever these came from: little bits and pieces of me in action, ingrained and formulaic, which in large measure constitute . . . me. I’ve rarely given them the slightest thought. But then again, why should I? They seem to work, and they don’t seem to matter that much. (I don’t think they do, anyway.) In their regularity, they provide a zone of safety in a chaotic universe. Were I to modify them—as I did when I remembered to stand up straight in the bathroom, or as I did when I moved my toothbrush first to the right side of my mouth—I don’t think my life would change very much. Yes, there’s always a buzz in simply altering any element of your life. Anything that breaks you out of a stale pattern, anything that’s new, has the potential to make you aware of you in a new light. (It’s what vacations are supposed to be about.) So who knows? With an increase in ambidexterity, maybe I’d feel freer, more balanced, less one-sided. And who knows where all that change might lead me?

To the movies?

Or maybe, instead, away from them?

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If a habit is a way of acting that, unconsciously and often compulsively, becomes fixed through repetition—an acquired mode of behavior that’s become nearly or completely involuntary—then a mode of behavior that’s followed regularly and usually through choice might be termed a “practice.” For me, going to the movies is a practice.

I go to the movies. A lot. I regularly check out reviews, ads, entertainment news, the whole infotainment circus, in a vain attempt to keep abreast of the humongous tsunami of audiovisual material that comes charging at us at an ever-accelerating velocity with each passing day. This whole part of my life was way easier to keep up with when there wasn’t so much damn “product” to keep track of. And while movie-going isn’t anywhere near as reflexive and thought-free as pants-donning or teeth-brushing, the practice recurs sufficiently frequently (three, four, five times a week?) that its repetitive quality makes it their not-too-distant cousin.

Why? Why do I go to the movies a lot? Sure, for entertainment, for aesthetic pleasure, to escape, pass the time. But, in another way, the explanation for this practice of mine is as mysterious and tautological as the reason for the semiconscious behavior I engage in when I dress myself or brush my teeth, that is: I go to the movies a lot because going to the movies a lot is a habit I’ve developed, a habit so strong that the urge to see a movie at times feels like a need I’ve been programmed to fulfill.

Of course, over time, as any particular pattern of behavior becomes ever more ingrained and thoughtless, the day may arise when you suddenly wake up to find yourself metaphorically pacing back and forth, confined to a prison cell that pattern has built around you.

I’ve somehow permitted the principle of automatism—the principle my heart and lungs not only symbolize, but literally embody—to creep into not just movie-going but all kinds of corners of my life: Email Maintenance, Catching Up On The News, Gym, Email, Relationships, Alcohol, My Relationship To Alcohol, Email. Somehow I’ve let my practices devolve into habits, unconscious and often compulsive habits, with little room left for the spontaneous and the unexpected, little room left for choice. Unthinking behavior—trance—becomes not merely the model, but too often the default, and at times even worse: the only modus operandi for the balance of my life. With age, these patterns have become even more encrusted, more tiresomely predictable. Laziness and inertia assume command, coaxing me to believe “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

But, whenever I awaken from a trance, “whenever,” as Melville wrote, “I find myself growing grim about the mouth, whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul,” I see what I’ve never seen before (never seen, that is, except for what I saw all those other times in the past when I awakened from a trance that some other unvaried pattern of behavior had put me in), and what I see is this: “it” is broke . . . and “it” must be fixed. And, in fact, it’s broke because it’s fixed (i.e., unchanging).

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