I sometimes refer to myself as a chain chewer. Chain smokers puff on cigarettes, I chew gum. I can chomp through one pack of Trident, sometimes two, in a single day, popping in piece after piece in rapid succession. When I’m not eating or drinking, it’s likely I’m chewing on a piece of sticky goodness. I even have strategically placed packs of gum in my car, my purses and three different drawers in my house. There may not be nicotine in my gum, but I can solemnly say that I’m addicted to that sweet marriage of sorbitol and synthetic latex. Give me a clear summer day and a piece of Passionberry Twist or Pucker Me Berry, and I’m content.
Obviously, excessive gum chewing is healthier than smoking, but it still has negative side effects, like jaw fatigue, cavities and headaches. Not to mention Emily Post doesn’t exactly condone chewing gum as a display of superior manners. With all this in mind, I still can’t quit. I’m hooked on the habit of chewing, the instantly gratifying first bite, the complex balance of artificial flavors. Although I’m certain another failed attempt at quitting is somewhere in my future, in the meantime I’ve accepted my chewing gum tendency for what it is: a bad habit.
Humans have been wary of bad habits since biblical times. Wrath, greed, sloth, pride, lust, envy, gluttony — succumb to these Seven Deadlies and you can say goodbye to heaven and hello to eternal damnation. But I find fault with the Christian designation of these vices as one-way tickets to hell. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that the Seven Deadly Sins make life worth living.
Yes, excessive laziness and consumption are damaging — heck, they’re responsible for this country’s obesity epidemic. But if I didn’t overeat or laze aimlessly every now and then, my overall happiness would be diminished. Vices are pleasurable, and sometimes the pursuit of pleasure is good for the mind, even if it’s damaging to the body.
Think about it in terms of gum. Chewing gum has a negative effect on my body but a positive one on my mind.
It may make my jaw sore and my grandmother sneer, but it also helps me concentrate, allows me to focus more deeply, relaxes me. The instant mental benefits outweigh the long-term physical detriments.
The pursuit of pleasure is as noble an endeavor as any other. Humans need food, water and shelter to survive; but they need pleasure — and a little bit of sin — in order to really live. The argument comes down to living in the moment versus living for the future, balancing the present with what lies ahead. I’d be dead if I lived on an endless stream of pleasure, always seeking my next fix. This is why one must cultivate this delicate equilibrium between enjoyment of a bad habit and that habit’s later ramifications. Everything in moderation is a difficult credo to live by, because habit formation and addiction are human nature.
Our lives are made up of a series of habits that make it easier to deal with our constantly changing environment; the repetition provides us with a sense of safety and comfort against a background in continuous flux. This theory also applies to bad habits, which can feel even safer and more comforting than good habits. Living a straight-edge lifestyle, abstaining from carbs and living frugally are admirable endeavors, but they’re also boring. It’s nice to be skinny and have extra cash, but is it really worth giving up the taste of freshly baked baguettes or the satisfaction of buying a new pair of Louboutins?
One of my friends can’t stop cracking her knuckles, with full knowledge that the habit annoys everyone around her and could potentially cause arthritis. Another friend nibbles her pencils, whittling them down to stubs that resemble a beaver’s handiwork. Yet both of my friends refuse to banish their bad habits, and for the same reasons: Their habits provide them with a sense of comfort and normalcy, a constant presence in every unfamiliar situation.
Too much of anything is inherently harmful. But bad habits don’t have to be the roadblocks standing in the way of our idealized selves. We all have a perfect image of ourselves, and we think that our bad habits prevent us from realizing that picture. “If only I drank less, exercised more, gossiped less, spent more time with my family,” we say. “Then I’d be a better person.” But the fact of the matter is that our bad habits make us who we are, and if we eliminated all vice, we’d become robots unable to enjoy the sinful pleasures in life.
I’m chewing a stick of gum right now, even as I publicly shame myself for this very habit. But you know what? I’m enjoying it, and that’s what matters.