Friday, January 05, 2007

The Gradual Road to Hell

by Michael Dymmoch

It’s just about the time we abandon New Year’s resolutions—those of us who made any. Most of our resolves concerned breaking bad habits. Eat less. Quit smoking. Write regularly (which really means abandon the bad habit of procrastinating). We rarely think about good habits—brushing our teeth, putting the car keys where we can find them again, buckling seat belts, turning off lights. Good habits seem like common sense. So we usually don’t try to analyze them extensively. They aren’t a burden because we do them on auto-pilot, leaving our minds free to plan our days or plot our murders. And they usually have good outcomes.

Bad habits often start out to have good outcomes. Overeating is the perversion of an activity we can’t live without. Smoking had cachet when we were thirteen. Now that we’re middle aged, it’s a smelly, expensive jones that leaves us standing in the cold and chronically short of breath. Alcohol is even more insidious because it comes recommended in moderation, though the event horizon for overindulgence can be difficult to locate. (And let’s not even mention TV.)

C. S. Lewis explained brilliantly how we blunder onto the gradual road to hell—the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without milestones, without sign posts. Dr. Phil insists you have to replace a bad habit with a good one.

What we do habitually is what we don’t think about. We may think obsessively about quitting, even exercise Herculean will power in resisting a bad habit, but as soon as we stop thinking—or resisting, the habit takes over. Making a meaningful change is a matter of thought control. And the first though you have to control is what’s the use?

In the long run, it’s usually worth the effort because the difference between a rut and a grave is the depth. Gerald Burrill had it right.

I wonder how he did after New Years.


ab said...

Breaking bad habits - I just taught myself to leave sudokus half-solved if they take too much time. That's good, right?

Barbara D'Amato said...

Sometimes it's possible to convert something you like into a good habit. I've tried a disheartening array of exercise regimens. All boring. Finally I realized I really liked walking around town looking at stuff. Well--heck. It may take me a while to catch on, but--

Anonymous said...

If I think of my bad habits as habits, they seem at worst naughty, at best benign, entirely forgivable. The one I'm trying to control is more of a compulsion--reading writers' listserves, hoping not to miss something useful. Yet it so easily becomes harmful when it takes over my day. I've conquered the exercise demon, though, by combining it with the one hour a day I give over to TV.
Chris Roerden