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December 28th, 2020
It’s an ironic tragedy that good habits can be so difficult to start and bad habits so difficult to stop. One way to look at it is to see the cessation of a bad habit as a new habit of not doing that pesky vice. No wonder it’s so hard: the end of a bad habit is really just an invisible good habit.
Habits are banal systems. They are automatic, almost boring in their repetition, and obvious only in the sense that the word obvious has an etymology meaning “frequently encountered.” Unfortunately, something can become so frequently encountered that it becomes invisible, we become inured to the everyday, the constant - that’s the core virtue of good habits and the insidious mechanism of bad habits. Once a good practice becomes a habit it no longer requires any willpower, it’s automatic, and over time we merely benefit from the compounded effects.
More important is the harm that compounds from a bad habit that is all but invisible to the person who fulfills this harm with the automaticity of a robot.
Perhaps the most relatable example is a poor diet. A can of coke and a donut doesn’t seem like much, but repeated thousands of times over the course of decades with similar diet choices and the compounded effects can feel completely unfair. Unfortunately, the effect of our choices persist through time, especially when repeated, these choices can leave our future selves with a heavy burden, perhaps even an impossible one.
These banal systems exist at all levels, from the personal diet, all the way up to a societal level. What’s the harm in driving a car? Well, the harm is microscopic, literally, figuratively, and effectively this makes the harm invisible. But when several generations across many countries adopt the same polluting technology across many domains and then just merely go about our lives, the experiment we initiate on a future state of the climate is anything but microscopic and invisible.
These banal systems can even exist at an insidious subtext to very conscious work. The words of Oppenheimer after the first atomic explosion illuminate this point. After the work of developing the first nuclear weapon was complete Oppenheimer spoke about it as though he’d been completely oblivious to the aim he’d been striving for. Despite being a brilliant theoretical physicist, he was, on a very real level, somewhat blind to what his basic personal systems of inquiry, problem solving and hard work were achieving. It’s a bit odd to think of something as dynamic as inquiry or problem solving as a kind of banal system, but it’s made banal by the disconnect between the result of the work and the experience of the work, just as the experience of eating a donut is disconnected from the dissatisfaction of looking in the mirror years later or listening to bad news from a doctor.
The common place version of our Oppenheimer is the business man who spends all his time working, and ultimately finds he’s missed out on a lot of the joys, like family, and fulfillment that were pushed aside for the work, only to wonder years later what exactly he was working for…
The banal aspect of such systems is neutral: the results can be either positive or negative. This is the whole point behind Socrates’ famous dictum “The unexamined life is not worth living.” We have to examine life to realize that it’s controlled by habits, by systems, and without consciously deciding on these systems and explicitly tinkering with them, we each become an unwitting slave to their results, be they good or bad. Examining those systems and endeavouring to edit them simply makes it more likely that we will wittingly benefit from the good of the virtuous systems we’ve chosen to put in place.