Tag Archives: Rituals


So what’s yours?  Pocket billiards?  Nail-biting like British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, or the odd sly pick of the nose?  But perhaps you prefer to keep these matters private.  Perhaps you’d slap an ASBO on anyone you saw indulge in your pet vice.  Even if, from time to time, in a traffic jam, you indulge in public too.

Hypocrisy is the usual stance towards bad habits, and denial what differentiates the bad from the benign.  I’m talking about those traits that advance our cause not a jot, yet which we cling to, either as tokens of our personality (‘I smoke; I break rules; ergo, I’m interesting’ was once my mantra) or because they scratch an itch nothing else can reach (e.g. annoying your wife).  In other words, it’s not just filthy nitpicking, or inconvenient foibles, like an addiction to artisan choc, that fall into the category of bad habits, but also more general character failings, such as always being late or never doing your share of chores.

But let’s suppose it’s possible – if only in private – to accept a habit is bad.  How might you get rid of it?  First, you’d need to accept that the less thought you gave it, the more it mattered to you.  As Malcolm Gladwell wrote in The Tipping Point, character is less a fixed set of traits than a bundle of ‘tendencies’ dependent ‘on circumstance’.  Hence if most people ‘seem to have a consistent character’, it’s only because ‘most of us are really good at controlling our environment’.  So habits are customs, described by Elizabethan philosopher Francis Bacon as ‘the principal magistrate of man’s life’.  A form of personal habitat, they help to keep life predictable, keeping at bay the chaos outside ourselves.  As a result, habits that reassure us can become problematic when they invade others’ territory (e.g. annoy a wife).  

You might find it easier mend your ways if you accepted your guilty pleasure is fun only for one, and a poor spectator sport.  Particularly if the boyfriend who hates you scratching then begins – to your mutual irritation – scratching himself.  (Did I mention that habits are contagious, since primates mirror each other’s behaviour?)  But to quit a vice outright creates a dangerous vacancy.  Which is why I commend the Renaissance monk Erasmus’s solution: ‘A nail is driven out by another nail.  Habit is overcome by habit.’  So stop nibbling, Gordon, and start painting those nails instead.  Soon you may have time enough on your hands.


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This morning my husband left me.  Thank God.  We are in the Malvern hills.  He expected a holiday but I must write.  (Coincidentally, about couples screwing up leisure.)  The sun is in, mist yields myopic views, and two loved-up newlyweds are building a house ten yards away.  Deafened by the cement mixer, they shout – right now, about a boil on the man’s arse.  Meanwhile my husband is hiking in Wales.  His parting shot: ‘Work hard.’  Mine: ‘Shove off.’  


Our break isn’t going to plan, but may yet be salvaged.  Romance is a matter of taste, and while the newlyweds happily bray their sweet nothings, that isn’t how we do love.  Forget Dirty Dancing: give us Cary Grant cussing Katie Hepburn!   Our defining romantic story was a disastrous honeymoon, with the punchline that he forgot my birthday.  (‘What do you mean, present?  I just gave you a helleymoon!’)  Still, this holiday may beat it.  Provided he comes back.


Romance is always a story.  The word reeks of Mills and Boon, but the original romances were epics of knights, monsters, and unattainable married princesses (then, marriage was about anything but love).  Nowadays there is a set romantic script by which to tell love.  Or so vendors of satin hearts and teddy bears hope we believe.  Such tokens are the bastard spawn of ritual gifts traditionally exchanged between courting couples (their value conveyed the gravity of intentions).  But conventionality may undermine romance.

Rituals are far from empty gestures.  They have the power to imbue experience with not only greater significance but also pleasure.  Psychologists find that if you make tea in a certain way, then drink from your favourite cup, it truly tastes better.  Only to you, of course, but then you are the one who matters.  It tastes better because our brains form neural circuits, and anticipation increases the release of dopamine, the joy chemical.  


It is a mistake to accept the pro-forma romance script and expect your relationship to fill in the gaps.  Instead, form personal rituals.  Have a song that is yours; routinely set aside fifteen minutes a day to chat and do nothing; make the effort to tell each other tales about your off-beat bliss.  Do this and your love should resonate deeper and last longer.  You may become smug bastards, braying sweet nothings.  But happy smug bastards.  

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