Dateline: Downtown

Dateline: Downtown

Dateline: Downtown

Dan Roche

Albert Einstein’s famous definition of insanity is “doing the same thing over and over again while expecting different results.” You see variations on this anywhere in the human sphere; for instance, when a supporter of the Iraq War says that the best option is to “get tougher”. Are they saying that the Army we currently have over there isn’t “tough” enough? What would they suggest we do, these war supporters, when they lecture us from their talk radio programs, melt the whole freaking country of Iraq? They ask us to do the same thing we’ve been doing, bombs and bullets and more bombs and more bullets, but in amplified magnitude because next time, for some reason, it will be different. Right?

That’s just on the political level. It’s an observable trait in our social and cultural behaviors as well, most notably in how we approach our bad habits. We resolve to quit eating like crap, or smoking, or what-have-you, because in the future, things will be different.

But we don’t really give up our habits, do we? We lie to ourselves, con ourselves into thinking that somehow we’ll have more willpower later than we do now. A while ago, one of my co-workers had been struggling with his weight. He mentioned to my boss that he was going on a diet, that he was going to stop eating garbage out of the delis downtown. The next day, my boss caught him eating a pastrami sub and called him on it. When she brought his supposed diet up, he said, “I know, but I’m just eating this sub, and then that’s it, I’m not eating poorly anymore. This is my ‘good-bye’ to junk food.”

She bought it, but I heard him on the other side of the room and winced. I knew he was playing himself. And sure enough the next week he was turning triple cheeseburger subs into ghosts, same as ever. I do the same thing with my smoking. I’ll finish off the last butt before New Year’s, or my birthday, or Yom Kippur or Ead or Independence Day in the Maldives. And, I mean, goddamn it. What did Twain say? “Quitting smoking is the easiest thing in the world to do. I’ve done it a thousand times.”

My boss quit drinking coffee though like it was nothing. She just up and did it, hasn’t looked back since.

The trick I suppose in breaking that pernicious cycle- oh yeah, that’s it forever/sorry, I’ve quit/well, just this once- is truly wanting to stop. Obviously, on an intellectual level, the person who wishes to break the habit in question is cognizant of the fact that their behavior is bad, otherwise there’d be no desire to quit. But one of the worst things about quitting is that, well, what you were doing is pretty enjoyable. It sets up a dichotomy in your head. You’re either a smoker, or a non-smoker, and you’re just not used to life as a non-smoker. And, of course, being an American, not a half an hour can go by where you’re not reminded of it somehow, and encouraged to, you know, spend a few bucks. The alcoholic knows the booze is destroying his brain, the junkie knows the drug is collapsing her veins, and the smoker knows the cigarettes are slowly giving him cancer and heart disease.

Everybody wants to quit. But habit is insidious! There is what the Buddha said, that foolishness is indulging from short-term pleasure that will bring long-term pain and that wisdom is undergoing tasks that require discipline, foregoing short-term pleasures in favor of long-term happiness. Sure, great, we know that.

BUT HOW THE HELL DO YOU DO IT?!? Resolving to quit a detrimental activity is not in itself a bad thing. It’s a noble thing, if carried out. But carrying it out is such a challenge! Anything worth having has its price, I suppose, and living free of bad habits is a state eminently worth pursuing.

It’s just resisting this urge, I guess, and gnashing some teeth in the early going as the cycle breaks. Any addiction follows a circular logic, and breaking that circle causes turmoil. You start in with something because it releases dopamines. You don’t like the way reality is going, so you try to augment it. You like this augmentation so you use it more. Your tolerance grows as the consumption of your substance increases. The absence of the substance causes pain, pain to be relieved only by its re-introduction. Which reinforces your body’s dependence. And leads you to do more. The cycle can drive you right into the ground, because that’s where following temptation generally leads you. Expecting anything different out of it is crazy.