during the late Pliocene and early Pleistocene epochs — a story circulated among the undergrads about the ultimate final exam, which supposedly had taken place in a Philosophy class.
As urban legend had it, the students, bleary eyed from sleepless nights of contemplating The Theory of Forms and defending or arguing whether one can indeed step twice in the same river waited while the professor sauntered into the mini amphitheater, faced them square on, dramatically waiting for silence. Then theatrically, he pronounced, “For your final exam, answer only this one question.”
With staged flourish, he turned to the chalkboard and scrawled:
Most in attendance did not expect this, and ascribing to a more crass philosophy — “If you can’t dazzle ‘em with brilliance, baffle ‘em with B.S.” — utilized the full allotted period to elaborate on this ultimate of all queries. After all, a question with such far-reaching bounds must be worthy of many pages and much ink.
Yet, as the story unfolds, the student who received the highest grade took no more than ten seconds to pen his rejoinder, strolling from the room almost immediately, while histrionically dropping his blue book on the instructor’s desk.
Simply, he had written,
Now it’s my turn: “Why?”
“Why do we do what we do when we know that what we do will move us further from health, happiness or success?”
Before the knee-jerk reply, “I don’t,” escapes your lips, consider these examples.
- Taking a short early evening walk would improve our health – let alone our relationships — yet we plop routinely on the couch and watch TV for hours.
- Steamed vegetables lower our cholesterol, reduce the possibility of heart attacks, and allow us live longer and look better than another plate of fried potatoes. Yet, which is our preference?
- Putting aside a few dollars every week for the college fund or retirement will begat a more comfortable future, but the double-sized, whipped, extra-caffeine, caramel latte today is “only a few bucks.”
I am not a proponent of a Spartan, barren, dreary, pre-1980s Eastern European existence. Nor, on the other hand, am I casting us as bloated, puffy, and lazy; akin to the human-like beings who drifted about in the Pixar movie, “Wall-E”. However, at least speaking for myself, there are so many opportunities where I could improve my lot — and my attitude — by thinking a little longer and acting a little less impulsively. I don’t have to do them all, but I could opt for at least a few more.
Yet, I don’t.
What’s that about?
As much a part of the human condition as falling in love or developing wrinkles, we are subject to habits: behaviors or thoughts done regularly, without analysis, in order to make our lives easier in the immediate. After all, as much as I love steamed vegetables (really, I do), I have never at the end of long, exhausting day of dealing with dolts, decisions, and deadlines, proclaimed, “Honey, instead of that glass of wine tonight, what do you say to raw turnips in a vinegar dip?”
Uh, nope, not happenin’. Not in this lifetime.
Habits, like our favorite aunt, exist only to smother us in comfort, giving us reprieve and safe haven from worry and concern. The drawback is they bring “side effects,” those annoying results we didn’t plan for, such as a bigger waistline or a smaller bank account.
We are the sum of our actions, which begin as thoughts. After all, in the philosophy class someone surely referenced Descartes, “I think, therefore I am.”