Force of habit

This may be thought a dull column on a dull subject; but dullness can have its own virtue when it surrounds and gives form to matter that is by its nature unsensational, repetitive, and routine. In any case, readers are warned in advance - and so (as the after-dinner speakers say to my eternal chagrin) ''without further ado'' I embark upon a discussion of the role of daily habits in the well-ordered and happy life.

The young like to do everything on impulse, by sudden inspiration; and that, when you think of it, is what gives the young their peculiar charm. If they could live up perfectly to their principles, they would never do the same thing twice, nor perform any act over again in the same way or at the same hour. They would eat when struck by a pang of hunger and lie down when they felt the first inkling of sleepiness. But for better or worse the young are fallible, like the rest of us; and they do actually fall into a kind of routine, though broken in their case by surprising departures from the norm.

Such departures are to be cultivated as one grows older. No greater bores exist than men or women so wedded to particular ways that an infraction of their schedule strikes them like a crack of doom. Yet equally pitiable are those of a certain age who seem to flutter about the world, never knowing what they are going to do next. They lack the force of habit, the wholesome discipline that might provide a semblance of quietude in their days. And when the difficult hour comes, how shaken and vulnerable they are!

To be able to go on steadily when the path is rough, to remain constant, cheerful, still hopeful when affliction strikes, requires certain ingrained attitudes and certain fixed modes of action. Then habit becomes a virtue, perhaps the supreme virtue; and the only vice is to yield weakly to impulse.

In the role of grandfather I have recently observed the admirable efforts of parents to inculcate standards of ethical behavior into their two-and-a-half-year-old son. He was to be obedient, going to his bed when told to; he was to be truthful, fulfilling his promises exactly. I am sorry to report that the experiment was not wholly successful. The child of two is not deficient in virtue, I am sure; but he is subject to fits of temper, shortness of memory, and to surprisingly strong convictions about the course proper for him to pursue.

Yet it was possible, I observed, for this unruly infant to fall into good habits in spite of himself. He could be more or less persuaded to go to bed at a recurring hour; with some lapses he could find it within his natural inclination to sleep to a civilized moment of the day. Rewards for adherence to an evolving schedule, and gentle admonitions when he conspicuously ignored it, reinforced the rhythms of his little life. In the end habit seemed at this stage a better guide than ethics, and one could believe that virtue would take care of itself.

How well fortified, besides, the lad would go into later years! Somewhat persistently, somewhat resolutely, he would face chores of existence; with determination he would meet its challenges day by day. He would still keep, one would hope, the freedom to dare. He would be ignited by the spark of love or irresistibly tempted to be brave. But all the time another force would be at work within him, something learned in extreme youth, perhaps in happy summer months - the simple steadfast habit of carrying on, of doing things over and over even when it has not become easy to do them.

He would have mastered the splendid dullness which can make heroes out of ordinary men and women, princes out of the poorest human clay.

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