Do you have things on your "to do" list that carry over from week to week? Little things, like calling so-and-so, putting away the Christmas decorations or just plain old cleaning the house? I've been noticing a lot how these things seem to nag at me and probably take more of my mental energy than it would take to just do it. We're a funny species that way, not always the most logical, but we'll do just about anything to justify our comfort. So tonight I did a little experiment where I made consequences for myself if I didn't finish what I started. I also timed myself to see how long it really takes to do certain tasks. As expected, I was astonished (I know it doesn't make sense to expect to be astonished, but whatever) it took me less than twenty minutes to put away all the clothes that have been piling up for weeks. It's pretty clear that as smart as we are, we don't often use this intellect to our utmost advantage. Sometimes we need to play tricks with ourselves to get the stuff done that we don't find the most favorable. Does anyone else have tricks they use to keep themselves in check and their life in order? Would love to know!
Hovering over my kitchen counter, on the verge of dipping my spoon into the peanut butter jar for a second round of delectable sensory satiation, I suddenly had a flash of my father - standing in the kitchen, jar in one hand, spoon in the other. Then I had a flash of the friends I have for whom this type of behavior would be abhorrent. I was conflicted, but it quickly became ap-parent why we develop the habits we do – monkey see, monkey do. Subsequently, there are also the beliefs we must adopt in order to support our behavior - rational or... not so rational. Despite knowing my mother isn’t a fan of such distasteful displays of consumption, or perhaps because of it, I adopted the time and energy saving technique and, clearly, held on to it. It made sense to me. Why bother with extraneous utensils or useless carbohydrates when all you really want is the delicious peanut butter anyway? The logic remains solid for me. However, there are other things that made sense to me as a kid that I have since revised. For instance, when I was a kid, after I’d eaten from the peanut butter jar, I would inconspicuously lick my spoon until there wasn’t a streak of peanut, or butter, to be seen, and declare it clean enough to go back in the drawer. I even thought I was doing my mom a favor by reducing cleaning duties. (sorry if you're reading this mom.) I don’t remember the exact moment I realized this probably wasn’t a sufficient form of dish-washing, or adequate hygiene, but I do still think about this innocent assumption and wonder how many others I still have yet to challenge. We all have habits, routines, beliefs, and assumptions about the world. Most of these, I imagine, are modeled after our parents’; probably also babysitters, teachers, friends, and icons, but our parents are often the ultimate authority on what’s good and bad, right and wrong, or “appropriate in public” or not – at least until we (hopefully) develop our own sense of values and reasoning ability. Whether we grow up attempting to model our parents in all their success and glory, or do everything in our power to be exactly the opposite, we’re still upholding the basic structural belief system handed down to us as kids. We are "pattern-making machines," as my friend once said, only most of our patterns were created without the luxury of logic. So what the hell? It was Einstein who said, “You can’t solve a problem with the same thinking that created it.” How can we see outside our faulty filters and develop consistency with reality?
Now, when it comes to eating peanut butter out of the jar, I’m not too concerned about my perceptual limitations. Maybe one day I’ll be in a situation where someone doesn’t like it and I’ll get scolded, but other than that, the consequences seem pretty minor. But what if I was brought up to believe people of different social classes, cultures, or IQ’s are not of equal value? Or on a very basic level, what if I was told I was no good at math? And I believed it! Or what if I was taught that financial success was the only way to be happy? This may not look so terrible on the surface, but the limitation lies in our inability to see other options. Our intellectual capacity often overrides these basic irrational beliefs and we're able to avoid having them challenged, but internally we feel trapped by these rigid expectations, and the projected expectations of others. By not examining our habits and beliefs, we are doomed live in a world of relative inconsistency and fear, because no two people have exactly the same beliefs, and those two people are the ones who taught us everything we know.
In some ways I feel fortunate to have had parents with differing worldviews. Whether it was the proper way to eat peanut butter or the intricacies of child rearing, there was much discussion to be had in my household; so much so, my parents have been separated since I was four. Their conflicts encouraged me to consider both sides of a situation, which I think helped me become a better critical thinker (I've been told, also a better arguer). I spent many hours determined to find solutions to my parents’ supposed problems, trying desperately to re-establish peace. And now, I’m still driven by a Spock-like compulsion to find common ground through logic, naively grasping at the hope that people are open to, or even looking for, resolution.
It’s funny, I find, how a simple bite of peanut butter could spur such self-examination. Thus, I believe, is the beauty of the human mind. I began writing thinking I would make a commentary on “habits” - for better or for worse - but in the process I revealed perhaps humanity’s worst habit of all: the habit of not questioning. So whether we continue to choose in accordance with our well-worn paths, or veer victoriously into uncharted territory, the important thing is to know why. Is your compass internal (based on values, ethics, and experience) or external (based on fear, rules, and what others think)? For me, eating peanut butter out of the jar still makes sense, but I feel more compassionate towards those who may have an opposing view. If I had grown up in a house where such behavior was punished or, even worse, resulted in a beating, surely I would have a different set of rules and boundaries. I probably would have begun this blog entry with: “Hovering over my kitchen counter, preparing to spread the peanut butter neatly on my toast...”
ironically, after i wrote this, i googled 'the peanut butter principle' because i thought it would be a cool title and i seem to remember a cheesy movie from the 80's that shared it. what came up was this anonymous essay that brings up some interesting ideas in a similar vein to what i just spoke (minus the Jesus talk). go figure.
and the movie was called 'the peanut butter solution.' oh well.