Habit and Ritual

Kage Baker was, as I have noted before, much given to rituals. Most of them were starting rituals: how to begin activities, rites that had to be followed in order to assure given activities a proper chance of success. It’s one of those essentially human behaviours, after all.

When she was young, she just shrugged and noted that everyone has habits like that. When she matured into middle-aged curmudgeonlyness, she would just grin and tell people she had OCD. In these syndrome-sensitive times, most people immediately dismissed any thought of critique. Especially since she was a writer, and everyone knows creative types are odd … and so they often are, but the need to ritualize behaviour is neither how nor why.

Kage may have had  mild OCD; it’s not a black and white condition, but rather a spectrum of concentration. It amused her both to claim she did, and to observe besides that most people do have a touch of it. She was right, too; a certain amount of ritual, rite, rote and symbolic behaviour are not only normal but necessary. They remind us literally of how things work. If a specific sequence of events worked last time, the chances that it will succeed again are greater. If it’s an activity like lighting a fire, hunting a deer, finding that bush with the red berries that eases cramps – well, those people who successfully work out dependable ways to make this work every time have more kids. Thus the tendency to engage in that behaviour increases in the general population, and the tendency to attach weight to habit becomes fixed.

The tendency can affix itself to neutral behaviours, and often does – by now, most people have the habit of forming habits. You may simply feel more comfortable if you never step on that crack in the front porch, or always tap your steering wheel twice before you start the car. Feeling a little extra ease doesn’t hurt and may help. As long as the behaviour is not outright interfering with your ability to forage, eat, secure shelter, reproduce – all those survival activities that interest your body – said body doesn’t care one iota what your upper brain functions do to satisfy an emotional itch. Wear your green socks – start every journey with a 45-minute long loop of Journey of the Sorcerer – heck, have an unusually large collection of intimate apparel in burlap – your body doesn’t much care as long as your brain’s antics don’t screw up the daily schedule.

Of course, the advantageous tendency to attach emotional weight to rote activities can go wrong. Then you get fetishes, neuroses, OCD – though even these are really only bad if they decrease your chance of survival. Some of even the most extreme of these behaviours can actually increase your chances, if properly handled. One of the amazing capabilities of our brains is to turn the stuff you just can’t help doing (no matter how odd) into something that gives you an edge. Or at least a meal and a mate.

The neighbors may complain, of course – genes have no standards, but society does – but what is that marvelous brain for, if not to increase your chances of getting what you want while decreasing your chances of ending up in the stocks? Practice discretion and join a hobby club; you’ll be fine.

Watching Kage refine this activity over 50-odd years into part of the engine of her writing was fascinating. Also enlightening. I’m even using some of her daily routines now, because it does help me settle into writing. Not that I get whatever puzzle-piece click of satisfaction it seemed to give her, but because I am used to the process and its results. Look at the all the web cams – click all the tabs on the Hunger Site – play a game of Free Cell – write.

It works. It works because I watched it work for Kage, for years and years. It works because it’s worked pretty much daily for the last 6 months, and every day it does work increases my conviction it will work tomorrow. And even though I know why it works, even though I can see the strings – I tied them on myself, after all – the reflexive action still succeeds.  It’s an amazing magic trick, and one of the best I learned from Kage.

So now – having looked and played and clicked (and started the writing here) – having fooled part of my mind into believing this course of action is inevitable and cannot be thwarted – off I go to the next step.

Tomorrow: Monday.