WHISTLING IN THE DARK:
The Power of Habit
Was reading an article about pop music today - a kind of a bittersweet piece about someone in their thirties trying to
understand which songs the current generation of teenagers will feel nostalgic for when they're confronting thirty - which songs they'll ask the DJ to play at their wedding reception. Which albums they'll bop around the house to with their kids - that is, will it be
Eminem? Limp Bizkit? Well maybe not, but Moby I can definitely see. And boy bands - lots and lots of boy bands.
I remember being in Pompey and there were these tracks cut in the street. It was cause the stone was so soft, relatively, and the cart traffic so heavy and so consistent, so well directed down these narrow streets, that they eventually cut grooves into the road itself. I used to think that was pretty exotic
and primitive, 'til I noticed that it's happening to the floors under the turnstiles in some of the older subway stations in Toronto.
It's like glaciers and water flows - that piddly little thing that runs at the bottom of the Grand Canyon cut the Grand Canyon - it just did it over a long period of time.
Apropos of water, I remember reading descriptions of soldiers marching in the American Civil War - it was from the personal recollections of
a mid-level volunteer officer. He wrote about how awful the brutally dull, repetitive and demanding process of marching was. In particular, I remember him describing how he hated puddles. He was an officer and he hated puddles cause they slowed his columns down. Whether it was a hundred soldiers, or ten thousand soldiers, ludicrous as it
seems, a puddle on the road really could slow an army. I wonder how many of the famous late arrivals that marked the victories and defeats of that war (or any other) happened cause of a puddle.
Of course, it's not the puddle that slowed down the army per se. Each individual soldier striding toward the puddle would, almost unconsciously, shift a little - see if they could avoid the worst of it - in a war in which soldiers periodically marched either in low walking shoes or bare feet, it's understandable. In shifting they would crowd the soldier beside them in the column, who would shift a little, and crowd his
and so on. This slowed them down and broke the pervasive rhythm of the march. It was a small break, a small slowing, but of course, it's effects passed down the ranks, slowing down everyone behind them, and every rank that followed, in turn, slowed as well. Multiply that by 200 lines of,
say four men each - 800 men to a regiment. By 1,250 lines of four men each -
5,000 men to a division. But then anyone who's ever driven by an accident on the highway has seen the same principle in action - each individual driver slows down slightly, and so on... In theory a division of battle-hardened soldiers is so much bigger than a puddle, it should scarcely register. In theory, 800 rush-hour hardened commuters ought to have seen enough tow-trucks that a Honda with a flat by the side of the 401 shouldn't register. In practice…
It's a relative of chaos theory - an individual's frivolity multiplied by 100 million is the power to change the world. And it's the principle that drives a consumer economy - and so we had
Liveaid. So a generation of North American and European girls will be united by
'N'Sync in a way that no political movement ever could. So Survivor 2 is so important that it's set is more secure than the White House: vast stretches of fence snaking through the Australian outback, armed guard patrols on horseback - no-one in or out, and all this in the middle of absolutely nowhere - and of course surrounding a chunk 'howling wilderness' that the game takes place in. It's why one of the powerful instruments for determining the personal presentation of the candidates in the last American Election was the writing on Saturday Night Live - Bush and Gore both tried to find ways to play into their parodies. Why we're constantly told that the failure of the Christmas shopping season will crash Western consumer economies - and why China is introducing new holidays to try and kick-start it's own.
They are powerful because they're popular, and popular because they're so… frivolous. But I don't think it's a manifestation of the collective intellectual bankruptcy of our culture that accessible things become popular. Those of us who imagine we're intelligent like to think of ourselves living separately from a mass of humanity who seem to exist only to support these things; rubber neck at car accidents, cut in front of us to avoid puddles, keep Survivor on the front page of national newspapers, listen to Eminem dis all the usual suspects (gays, women, short people - oh no, that was Randy Newman), support the elaborate industry that is The Boyband (come now, you've always known there was only one, haven't you?).
We are all individuals, with individual hopes and aspirations - we all think we're smarter than all the stupid people in the world. We all work hard at what we individually believe in - but it's all those little things, like turning to look at the car accident, like stepping around the puddle, like watching Survivor cause it's easier than not having anything in common with the people at the water cooler, like boys embracing Eminem because he provides the simplest route to rebellion, like girls growing up listening to boy bands because they are so harmless… It's those little things that we all have in common that are the activities that get multiplied by 5 million, or 300 million or 6 billion everyday.
It's not that the world is full of stupid people, it's that the world is full of people doing intelligent and stupid things. The intelligent things they do with effort and forethought, carefully and precisely, to achieve a certain goal - which of course brings them in conflict with other people, not so keen on said goal. So the intelligent things we do, the premeditated, well thought out things we do are lost in a sea of conflicts with other well thought out things - and not just conflicts with other people, things we do thoughtfully also conflict with other things we will do thoughtfully later in life, after our goals or perceptions have changed. But the stupid things, the unpremeditated things, the things we do not think about, do out of instinct or habit, are repeated again and again, multiplied endlessly through whoever has the same reaction - so rubbernecking motorists bring cities grinding to a halt and soldiers stepping around puddles decide the fate of armies.
But of course that's what the Buddhists will tell you is the secret to enlightenment. Conscious joy or construction is lost beneath the tide of thought, question, action and reaction. Unconscious, unthinking joy and constructive acts done without thought or consideration - simply and from habit, will multiply…
The world is not changed by the glorious actions of the few, but by the habits and frivolities of the many…