What’s In A Habit

Have you ever noticed how easy it is to spot the habits of others, annoying or otherwise, the go-to patterns of speech, the walk, the gestures? Looking in the mirror to identify our own habits is not quite as simple. I remember from Sunday School a thousand years ago, the verse of why you see the speck in another’s eye, but not notice the log in your own eye, or something along those lines. I was very young and wasn’t sure how a log could fit in an eye and maybe the point of the verse was lost on me then, but I eventually figured it out.

I like to remember certain habits of old friends, like how they laugh or hold their head when they are in serious thought, or their walk or any number of patterns that are repetitive. I can then call on those images to make said friends feel closer. I think the laugh is what sticks with me the most. I can no longer hear my dad’s laugh and haven’t been able to for many years and that makes me very sad, so I work hard at refreshing the memory whenever I can of friends who form the precious collage of my childhood.

Some habits do grate on the nerves, and I must confess I wince when I hear a young person using the word “like” effusively. I thought that particular habit had vanished or eased, but it is still hanging around. I have the habit of not finishing a sentence when I am talking to a person I am not comfortable with. That’s got to be annoying for the person listening to me. It’s like a guillotine slices my thought, chopping the last bit of the sentence cleanly off. Usually, I can’t even retrieve those words; they are simply gone, vanished into thin air like smoke from the toaster and I am left with an unfinished sentence and nowhere to go.

I often see lists of habits which successful people employ. These lists seem to pop up left right and centre when I am doing research on this and that. I think it is good advice to develop healthy habits, but I see those more as intentional undertakings than habits. I see a habit as something that happens without our invitation or planning. For example, many of us tilt our head when we are hearing sad news. I don’t know why that is, but it likely has something to do with softening our appearance so that the person sharing the sad news feels heard or comforted. Chewing our nails is a habit whereas asking yourself in the morning mirror what you would want to do if this was the last day of your life doesn’t sound like a habit to me but a choice. One of my four daughters was a thumb-sucker. That was a habit and a tough one to break. She was born sucking her thumb, so I knew it was firmly engrained in who she was, right from the get go. She’s thirty now and no longer sucks her thumb so some habits can be broken or at least altered.

I had an aunt who was born deaf, without an auditory nerve. Her method of getting everyone’s attention was to run on the spot. It worked like a charm. It was a habit we all took on when we were in her house, and I don’t ever see or hear someone running on the spot that I don’t think of her, and my heart fills up. My father almost always had a pencil stuck above his right ear. I do the same thing when I am building something, not out of habit the way he did, but by choice, as a way to pull him close. I love the habits of those I love. It’s what makes them unique and memorable, a bit like a fingerprint. We all have our oddities and strangeness, but I prefer to think of it like the shapes of leaves. Each leaf serves the same function, but each tree decided it was best to fashion their greenery in their own way.

Benjamin Franklin said it is easier to prevent bad habits than to break them. He had a point. People who first see the bad in every situation rather than good and those inclined to gossip without concern for the truth do need some adjustment with their habits, but using a wrong word grammatically or raising our eyebrows when someone talks to us or pulling our shoulders up to our ears when we are happy becomes our signature and makes us memorable.