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Habit or Second Nature

William James seems to see a connection between habit and a person’s possibilities as being intertwined, that one does not exist without the other. James’ gives the example of a tiger that through an accident is set free. Yet he comes back to his cage which suggests that habit overrides instinct.


A habit is a safe place for not only animals but people as well. We just follow the easiest path. Society has brainwashed us into acting as a unit, by not teaching us how to be individuals and to explore our own personalities in life. We are confined by the box we have put ourselves in since it is easiest for us to do. To follow society’s teachings we need to do as others before us and step outside our boxes to experience the world as it really is.

Our own natural instincts are suppressed by habit When a person or animal has been trained or brainwashed to act a certain way they lose the use of the natural instincts we are all born with. We lose the self-preservation that is ingrained in us by following the easiest path such as habit. As James’ tiger by going back to a place he knew as comfortable and safe. James also uses the example of the military more solid hearing the word “Attention”, to show how he has been so conditioned that he reacts out of habit. All of us, be it animal or human, have a comfort zone where we stay out of habit. To step out of what is familiar would cause us to act or react to life that is unfamiliar. So in a lot of ways habit has left us blind to what we are really capable of in our lives, just as James’ example of the men growing old in prison who asked to be readmitted since they were used to the habits and routines in prison.


They were unable to adapt to change and the real world outside, their instincts for freedom had been suppressed. James also states, “Habit is what keeps the fisherman and the deck-hand at sea through the winter; it keeps the coal miner in the dark.” There are those of us who have been able to step outside their box. They are the ones who are trying to help us fight this battle of life, and be able to make the best pursuit of what life has to offer us. Our parents, grandparents and great-grandparents were all taught that society expects us to behave and act within the rules or habits that have been in place for a very long time. To really be able to understand what is right for us we need to leave our habits and try living in the real world, with no safety net. We can then experience all the other possibilities we are capable of. We need to think for ourselves and let society and its habits lead us back into a safe place. It is hard since there are no rules to lead us in this unfamiliar place. While I was growing up I challenged society’s rules. My mother always told me I had to follow the rules that society had set up.

Especially the rules for how a woman should behave, like not going out unaccompanied, or not going out to dinner with a man who was not her husband. When I asked her why she didn’t have a real answer about why I should follow rules and habits set up by a bunch of old women who didn’t know me. An example of how this affected me was after I married my husband, would go and work out of town occasionally. I had mentioned to my mom that I wanted to go see a movie at the theater that was a block from our apartment. She became very upset and told me married women don’t go out in the evening by themselves. I questioned her as to why, and she just said that society frowned upon it. She was taught by society that when a married woman goes out at night unaccompanied she is perceived as looking for a sexual encounter. From the seventies to today some still think and believe the same way. Whenever I tried to step out of the box and be my own person society was always watching me. It is an uphill battle to break habits and to be the real person I knew I could be. We should be able as individuals to take our free agency to think and choose for ourselves.

But we are not always able to because of this being an unfamiliar path and our not feeling safe. I have made a couple of choices recently that have taken me outside the box and into the unfamiliar area. First I chose to come back to school and share my experiences with my peers and with the next generation. Prior to making this choice I had let habit and fears confine me. I didn’t feel I was capable of learning with other students who were much younger than I was. I was thinking then out of habit since it was the safest place for me at that time. We should all try what is new, not that which is born out of habit. There is an abundance of experiences in the real world just waiting for us to step out of our comfort zones. I stepped out of my comfort zone by going back to school. By putting my fears aside and stepping outside of my box I was able to enjoy meeting people and found new friends. To break old habits and step outside of our safe areas is to experience and also understand the possibilities that life has to offer. Just think of all the different things we would miss if we all chose to stay within our own safe areas.

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