Habit, second nature?

Habit, second nature? Habit is ten times nature, exclaimed William James. The degree to which this is true, none can appreciate so well as a veteran soldier. We know of people who browse through dailies in toilets! Also of others who can't bathe but in warm water, dine sans a sip of wine, sleep without a cup of tea… Panditji used to start his day with 'shirshasan'. Krishna Menon used to punctuate his work with cups of tea. Some are common. Some are strange.

'Habit' came from the Latin word 'habitus', meaning both 'condition' and 'dress'; in ancient times one's dress usually represented his condition or position in life. Today it can be a practice, behavioural pattern, custom, convention, characteristic, tendency, predilection, or fashion.

We usually say so-and-so is used to retiring late, waking up early, walking down the distance, working in the din, shouting over the phone, skipping the lunch or spitting wherever possible.

Manners and mannerism form yet another facet. The outward behavior in social circles and habits hinting good breeding are all manners. Mannerism is defined as excessive addiction to a distinctive manner. It can be a trick of style or gesture or speech. Rolling the eyes, and shoulders quite often, biting the fingernails, wetting the lips, picking the teeth, cleaning the nostrils and clearing the throat are examples of mannerism. Some are decent, some appalling.

And we know of smoking, chewing, snuffing, reading, writing, gardening, gambling, drinking… Some are good, some unhealthy. Maybe that addiction to any habit with a limit is tolerable. But more often than not, some cross this limit and lose their self-control, thus inviting danger and disgrace to selves and dependents. As time passes, habits convert even luxurious enjoyments into dull and daily necessities.

The seeds of virtues are mostly sown in childhood. Further, the environment plays a vital role in nursing and nurturing them - the roses bloomed in a well groomed garden! In contrast, a smoker can induce his friend to try a puff, an alcoholic can force his accomplice to gulp a peg. It is first a forced trait, then an inclination, a desire, an urge, a daily necessity and thus an established habit! Elders have wisely cautioned us to make friends with good people."

- P. K. Balasubramanian