A stone cannot learn to rise up to the sky even if you were to toss it into the air a thousand times. Likewise, a flame from a campfire cannot descend into the ground.
Habits are part of the automatic actions of our everyday lives, though we are conscious of them. They are like a hidden memory bank that instructs us how to carry out all the actions needed to accomplish most of what we want to do.
This is why Aristotle regarded habits as a “second nature” which ultimately refers back to the “primary nature” or instinct. The difference is that habits are learned behaviors while instincts are innate.
Habits make it possible for us to carry out our multiple tasks at once, and to do so efficiently and with precision. This is why a person is able to type and hold a conversation at the same time.
This is because with practice typing becomes a habitual action and does not require deliberate thought to carry out. This is also why it is easy for young people today to type a message on Twitter while simultaneously watching a television program and talking to a friend.
You should be courageous in engaging with new situations. Get used to the unfamiliar. Learn habits that will help you succeed under novel circumstances. These can be similar to the ones you already have, but adapted to the task at hand.
A person who plays basketball can easily switch to volleyball, since the habits developed in playing one sport can be transferred to the other.
The study habits that researchers develop in their field can help them acquire knowledge in other fields more quickly and with less effort than people who have not developed those study habits.
People can habituate themselves to exhibit certain positive behaviors in various social situations, like suppressing anger, showing solidarity, and being generous. Indeed, some people describe moral values as “ethical habits”. Likewise, Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) said:
“Goodness is a habit and bad behavior is obstinacy.” (Ibn Majah)
These habits are a means for people to preserve society’s values while staying ready for what the future has in store. They protect people from the trauma of sudden change.
Habits enable people to learn quickly, respond with understanding, and engage with new developments effectively. Past actions become an automatic response requiring no effort or attention, freeing the mind to engage with more important concerns.
This is what acquiring skills is all about. It allows for precision, speed and efficiency. This goes for driving, riding a bicycle, swimming, writing, speaking, mental calculations and personal habits. At the same time, habits can kill the spirit of innovation, encouraging routine behavior and humdrum thinking.
People gravitate to what is easy and naturally avoid the more difficult path, shunning the extra effort and risk. This impedes progress and original ideas. This is why it has been said:
“Intellectuals advance knowledge during the first half of their lives and impede it during the second half.”
This means that habit breaks the spirit of critical inquiry and prevents the formulation of new ideas, making the intellectual a captive of those hard-won conclusions formulated during the early part of his or her career.
Giordano Bruno was burned at the stake for challenging the geocentric view of the universe. Much later Galileo would be forced into house arrest for upholding the same ideas.
Many scientists have faced hostility for suggesting ideas that were contrary to what people were familiar with. But innovative thinking is indispensable for discovery.
Had they been unwilling to think out of the box, Einstein would never have come up with the theory of relativity, Columbus would not have opened up the Americas to European exploration, and neither Ibn Majid al-Najdi nor Vasco da Gama would have discovered the Cape of Good Hope.
Habits and outdated thoughts hamper social progress. Generational conflict is nothing but the tension between ingrained habits and new ideas.
Republished from Islam Today.