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The Sublime Whisper of the Bad Habit

June 26, 2019
Mae West

“When I’m good, I’m very good. But when I’m bad, I’m better.” Mae West

Bad habits fascinate me. There are few among us who don’t partake in at least one behavior, train of thought, or activity which isn’t precisely in our best interest. Might cause friends and foes alike to narrow their eyes and say, “Oh, no! She didn’t!”

Whether it’s all too frequent binges on junk food, glasses of (good!) wine imbibed for health reasons (of course!), sexual proclivities which might not even be practiced, but researched into a bit too enthusiastically, or ill-advised political posts on social media that find their way into the void at ungodly hours… even the most saintly lot of us have the propensity to dabble in the naughty on occasion.

Why is that?

We don’t have to look too hard to see how the root of a bad habit’s appeal goes well beyond the pleasure of the experience. If it were only about pleasure, I think we could easily curb our excesses. Massages are immensely pleasurable, after all, but they hardly merit scholarship, front-page news stories and treatment centers. How many of us would risk losing our careers and flirt with bankruptcy or divorce or utter disgrace just to feel Darius’s able hands on our tired muscles once more? Here him ask, Where are you holding your tension today? in that soft, soothing voice of his while New Age muzak plays in the background. Never do we see men and women skulking away from spas in a walk of shame. On the contrary, they look relaxed, relieved and self-satisfied. I should do this more often, we hear them crow. No one disagrees.

Mae West 1

“I generally avoid temptation, unless I can’t resist it.” Mae West

The truth is, most of us understand the allure of a bad habit has less to do with an immediate pleasure and is more often fixed around the impression of a pleasure. Of how we have worked our minds to draw it using the most flattering of lines. In that way, bad habits tickle our consciousness like that lover who got away. We see him perpetually through the diabolical lens of a first time. Before he let us down, showed us his true colors. When he was all about a smile and a flutter in our bellies. And his every word was still spoken with an irresistible subtext of promise.

Mae West 3

“A man can be short and dumpy and getting bald, but if he has fire, women will like him.” Mae West

Lots of bad habits start off innocently enough, after all. They might even improve our lives – infusing us with a dash of style, a tinge of danger that makes others look at us anew. I’ll never forget my grandmother telling me the story of how she started smoking. She had a huge crush on my grandfather, an Olympic hockey player with the most dreamy blue eyes, but she felt too tall and bookish in his company. Finally, her friends told her the problem.

“You’re beautiful, Betty,” they said. “But you don’t look like any fun because you don’t smoke.”

After coughing her way through several clumsily rolled cigarettes, my grandmother found her footing. That weekend, she showed up at the hockey rink with a cig in hand. She’d never felt more sophisticated, and stood high and proud in her willowy 5’11” frame. A full inch taller than the handsome hockey player who would become her husband…

Mae West 2

“A hard man is good to find.” Mae West

Bad habits have a way of exploiting how we’d like to see ourselves, rather than showing us how we really are. While that has it’s uses – getting us into an “in” crowd, delivering a hot date, providing a plethora of entertaining stories for years to come – it can also lead us into a wicked hellscape if we’re not careful.

Few know this better than the Alcoholic. Problem drinkers often reminisce about what it was like when they first started on the sauce. How they nearly choked on the sharp and bitter taste as it hit the back of their throat, but felt a peculiar sense of accomplishment when the warm hooch flooded their chest cavity. It was a two-faced reward and they knew it, yet they still came to regard that feeling as the beginning of their transformation, an evolution into a fortified version of themselves. More confident and wry, better looking.  And the better they felt, the easier it went down. There’s a reason, after all, why booze is often referred to as a “glass of courage.” It’s a social elixir that helps tear down inhibitions, not only marshalling our witty thoughts, but giving us the gumption to actually say them.

Those initial halcyon days of a bad habit are heady indeed, and that’s not always a bad thing. A love of wine, the odd toke, a ripe libido – these things alone don’t take you down a ruinous path. In fact, for some they are the key to a happier, more successful life.

That conundrum, too, gives the bad habit its luster.

Mae West 4

“To err is human, but it feels divine.” Mae West

The element of danger in a bad habit is a pleasure all its own. It’s in the kick of tempting fate, of rebelling against a nameless, faceless mob of blue noses. Or a very specific blue nose – a father, a wife, a teacher a bureaucrat. In the moment when we succumb to that drink, that wicked woman, the cigarette, the hot fudge sundae, we feel sublime…until we don’t. But even that seesaw of emotions has its appeal. We tell ourselves that at the very least we’re not boring. We’re not, God forbid, one of…them. And if we’re honest with ourselves, we know damned well that’s not entirely a self-serving lie. People who flirt with the risqué are more interesting, more fun, a thrill to be around.

At least until they’re not.

And when we get sick of our bad habits? When they’ve done so much more harm than good, and we don’t even enjoy them anymore, we can throw down the gauntlet and vow to quit them once and for all! We’ll mean it, too – flushing, deleting, and opening the trash bin, raising our middle fingers high. Feels good – almost as good as the bad habit itself used to feel. And in such moments of clarity, we get to feel smug and reformed, ready to take on the world again.

Except we often find that casting off our bad habits is harder than we anticipated. Much harder. Even if we’ve come to hate every damn thing that came with them. Like the expensive paraphernalia, the wild and crazy memories, the so-called friends. In fact, in the event we do manage to put our bad habits behind us, we know all too well how a mere person or event, a strong emotion, could cause us to relapse in the blink of a bloodshot eye. In the dial of a telephone number that was best forgotten.

Because no matter how often the doctors, the mothers, the priests and politicians tell us that there’s nothing good about a bad habit…we know they’re wrong. Because the habit in and of itself isn’t the problem. We are.

Mae West 5

“When women go wrong, men go right after them.” Mae West

  1. Colleen Baker permalink

    Thank you….you explained life….at least my life. If I was at a 12- step meeting I would have shouted “oh yeah..”

  2. Ha! I’m glad you shouted it here!

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