Weeding, Seeding and Place-Keeping
Step One: Weeding Our Character
When Freeman Hrabowski, president of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, was awarded an honorary degree at the Haverford College 2007 Commencement ceremony, he told the graduates (including my son Sam),
"Watch your thoughts, for they become your words. Watch your words, for they become your actions. Watch your actions, for they become your habits. Watch your habits, for they become your character. Your character has everything to do with who you are, not only when people can see you, but what will you do when no one is watching? There is your character. So watch your thoughts, they become your words, your words your actions, your actions your habits, your habits your character. Watch your character. It becomes your DESTINY."
I really do not like this message (which others have since told me is an old chestnut). It seems to indicate a fear of randomness. It seems to advocate policing the unconscious, putting a lid on the surprising--and sometimes very productive--unpredictabilities that show up in that underground river.
Step Two: Seeding Our Freedom
"Sow an action, and you reap a habit; sow a habit and you reap a character; sow a character and reap a destiny."
I much prefer this version: because it's inviting, rather than policing; because it's about the possibilities of casting seeds, not the need to stifle weeds....Not bad, not bad at all.
A little researching suggested that James didn't coin the aphorism; it's attributed to the 19th century English novelist Charles Reade. But James recorded it in his copy of an essay he himself had written about the productive power of habit:
As Louis Menand has argued, the wide appeal of James's pragmatism lies in its essential claim that people are the subjects of their own destinies, able to change their behavior according to life experience....As James states in an 1898 lecture, "Beliefs, in short, are really rules for action; and the whole function of thinking is but one step in the production of habits of action." According to James, habits are ways in which individuals make choices based on their own practical experience....
Trained in medicine, James understands habit first as a physiological phenomenon, with ethical and moral consequences. "[H]abit," he writes, "is nothing but a new pathway of discharge formed in the brain, by which certain incoming currents ever after tend to escape." Repeating certain actions creates these "pathways" so that habitual actions lack impediment. Habit, therefore, fosters skill, speed, and decisiveness (all of which Jamesian philosophy promotes). Perhaps most importantly for James [and certainly most important for me], cultivating habit allows the intellectual spirit to grow; habit frees up the mind for thought. He writes: "The more of our daily life we can hand over to the effortless custody of automatism, the more our higher powers of mind will be set free for their own proper work"....Habit...does not stifle the mind....Rather, habit opens a door to intellectual freedom and ease.
Step Three: Keeping History in Place
The article which told me all of this, Liesl M. Olson's "Gertrude Stein, William James, and habit in the shadow of war" (Twentieth Century Literature, Fall 2003), offered, in turn, an extended meditation on the limitations of habit. According to Olson, James celebrated "habit as a result of the freedom to choose, and the subsequent indication of a fully formed character." For him, it was a means towards self-improvement, understood primarily in terms of productive action.
But also inherent in the habitual is its role as a "conservative agent," a stabilizing necessity in the overwhelming world of pure experience. James wrote that, "taken as it does appear, our universe is to a large extent chaotic"--and habits represented for him "an attempt to stabilize and protect against uncertainty."
For James's famous student, the American modernist novelist and poet Gertrude Stein, the habitual became the linchpin of a lifelong pleasure in repetitive words and actions. Living in France during World War II, Stein relied on habit as a "protective shield against too much violence"; it allowed her to avoid "confronting the mass destruction and death intensifying all around her....Habit establishes fixed places both for individuals and society as a whole....habit is place keeping."
Her literary experimentation likewise centered on the creation of a continuous present, a refusal of the forward movement of time. One critic has suggested that "Stein was by temperament and conviction 'conservative' in the word's broadest sense: she was opposed to change." Other critics have argued that her repetitive words were defenses against despair, irrationally hopeful in denying all logic of cause-and-effect, in refusing to be shaped into narratives with historical explanations. Stein's "plotlessness and innovative wordplay" have been read as her "rebellion against the teleological telling of history," for which she substitutes a "wandering mode" of representing "cyclic or repetitive time."
In her extended description of the "crucial utility" of repetitive habit, Olson constructs a damning critique of its political inadequacy. In Stein's case, the anchor of habit came to figure
a dangerous kind of self-absorption, an extremely problematic escapism, cloaked as pacifism....Habits, as a defense...enable a dangerous blindness to what...demanded action...Stein's World War II writings implicate her modernism in a paralyzing and troubling preoccupation with the daily. Habit...creates "an existence suspended in time"...a refusal to accept "momentous" change.
Olson calls Stein's World War II writings "nostalgic, in the sense that they resist, even rebuke, the forward movement of time." What an ironic turn to the radical empiricism and pragmatism both of Freeman Hrabowski and of William James: an optimism earned at the cost of denial of historical progress.
Coda: Opening a Door, Building a Floor
Where has this extended meditation taken me? From the insistent "watching" of Freeman Hrabowski, through the optimistic "sowing" of William James and the pleasurable "repeating" of Gertrude Stein, to my own renewed awareness of how frightening change can be. In bringing about novel and progressive possibilities, it also necessitates, of course, all sorts of breakage; in the creation of something new, some of the old will inevitably be destroyed.
My newly coined aphorism tries to remove some of the angst associated with watching and sowing, by replacing them with the gentler actions of letting arise what will, then attending to it:Let thought arise, and so open a door.
Revise the thought, and build a floor.
Stand there for a bit, and attend.Is that a useful thought? What do you think?
Other Open Doors on Serendip:
William James and Pragmatism
William James and American Functional Psychology
Louis Menand, The Metaphysical Club
Making the Unconscious Conscious, and Vice Versa
The Grace of Revision and the Profit of "Unconscious Cerebration"