Woe to she who ruins my Sunday brunch.
Like the approximately 1% of the US population that still reads the Sunday paper, I was all set to relax with the book review section when I was struck down by a mighty fist of happiness.
More specifically, by Gretchen Rubin, author of The Happiness Project and more recently of her new book, Better than Before: Mastering the Habits of our Everyday Lives, which crashed into my French toast with with all the subtlety of a 1950s Home Economics hygiene video. Rubin’s new book evaluates how we can break bad habits and adopt new ones using her personality categories that identify whether we are internally or externally motivated to change: Upholders meet both inner and outer expectations; Questioners follow their inner guide but question external authority; Obligers meet external goals but may fall short of their personal expectations; and Rebels, who are apparently the big losers in this equation, questioning everything while resisting habits and change.
Even as a person who thrives on structure—I really dig deadlines, keep to a regular writing schedule, and aspire to exercise until sweaty at least five times a week—Rubin’s assertions galled me. “Bad” habits, or vices, included binge-watching House of Cards, nail biting, and hair twirling (Rubin’s own admission). Hair twirling? In what world is this behavior a vice? Who, exactly, is hurt by imprudent hair twirling? While in the interview Rubin identified one significant area where self-awareness and habit change do truly matter—excessive alcohol consumption—the other “vices” listed are the very elements that constitute my perfect Saturday night. I wondered, to what level of perfectionism does this person aspire?
In the interview, Rubin’s husband describes her “proselytization, harassing, and explaining why something is the right thing,” to “encourage” him to eat better and go to bed earlier. I will not claim to have any insight into Rubin’s marriage, but when I read that passage, alarm bells clanged in my head. Aren’t proselytizing and harassing bad habits themselves? Maybe a little more significant than hair twirling and staying up to watch Jon Stewart once too often?
In Rubin’s new book I see a hard-working woman on a mission to help people live better lives (and for herself, to continue earning an excellent income from royalties). But to what end? At this point in my life, I’m far more interested in exploring what my vices have to teach me than in eradicating them. Procrastination is most often my body’s cue that I need rest and spaciousness. Craving chocolate ice cream tells me it’s time to celebrate. Biting my nails lets me know I’m stressed and need to take some down time for myself. And staying up late means my inner rebel seeks freedom. Indulging it makes life more fun.
Furthermore, that which I perceive as “flaw” is what makes me interesting, empathic, relatable. I have a ridiculous sense of humor, often break out in dance moves in public, and frequently talk to myself at inappropriate times. I occasionally spend too much on eating out, always have one cup of coffee too many, and appreciate Monica Gellar levels of tidiness. I bite my nails. I laugh too loudly. I cuss too much. By Rubin’s calculus, I would be happier if I reined in all these “bad” habits. But the very arbitrary nature of “bad” as a label creates another, even more complicated trap: Who’s to say what’s bad and what’s good? Aren’t our very judgments the root of the problem here?
As we say in the South, bless her heart.
Beyond the basics (honor commitments, care for your body, be kind in general), who the hell cares? When I imagine a life where all “bad” habits are tamed, all rough edges smoothed, all that’s left behind is a bland, vanilla sort of existence. How dull.
Here’s what: We’ve got about 80 years on this planet, in this skin, if we are lucky. It’s important and honorable to be a generally good person. I believe that. But I also know the greatest moments in my life have been the times when the careful habits of my life broke completely apart and I created something new from the wreckage. Like when I quit my safe and secure job to go to go back to graduate school. When I stayed up way too late and fell in love. When I impulsively adopted a puppy and found the love of my life. When I traveled to Paris and ate cake every single afternoon (now there’s a habit worth keeping). When I drank too much and kissed the boy I was too shy to talk to. All of these “bad” habits led me to some of the peak moments of my life.
And finally this: Humans are not problems to be solved, but mysteries to be understood. I am not a machine, with a set of gears to be wrenched into perfection. The messiness, the complications, the quirks make us unique and human. Learning to accept ourselves just as we are is the only habit worth nurturing.
Cyndi Briggs is a professor of counseling, a speaker and consultant, and a writer of fiction and creative non-fiction. She’s the co-editor of Snapdragon: A Journal of Art and Healing (snapdragonjournal.com). Her memoir and essays have been published in numerous print and on-line journals and she teaches expressive arts and writing in her hometown of Winston-Salem, NC. Visit her at her website: waywardsister.com.