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Getting Along by Lawrence J. Cohen - A bi-weekly column in The Boston Globe

3/13/2003 - Opinions often based on habit, not choice

I ate a bowl of oatmeal the other day. OK, that isn't earth-shattering. The only reason I mention it is that for as long as I can remember, I have hated oatmeal. My automatic reaction to oatmeal is always ''yuck.'' Sometimes I go further and suggest that I'm sure no one else actually likes it either; anyone who thinks they like it is simply experiencing nostalgia for a food from their childhood that they had to choke down but that now seems comforting. Since I never had it as a child, I am immune to its nostalgic appeal.

But wait a minute. If I never had it, how do I know I hate it? If I ever did have a bad experience with oatmeal, it was so long ago that I don't even remember it. That has never stopped me from loudly and repeatedly expressing my opinion that it's horrible. So I'm not sure what came over me when my wife said she was going to have oatmeal for breakfast, with raisins and maple syrup, and I asked her if she would make me a bowl, too. What was I saying? Now I'd have to eat it. What happened to my knee-jerk rejection?

I guess without really thinking about it, I was seeing if I could break out of one of those little ruts in the road, the kind that we usually don't even notice. My aversion to oatmeal, like most tastes and preferences, was probably just a matter of habit, with no relation to anything really terrible about oatmeal. I was embarrassed to realize that I had made disparaging remarks about oatmeal hundreds of times, based on little or no experience. Maybe I would love oatmeal, and regret every bowl I had ever passed up.

Many habits have a bigger impact on our lives than our breakfast habits. We may be habitually shy and timid, or aggressive and obnoxious. We say ''no'' to anything anyone suggests, or go along passively even if it isn't what we want. We justify these habits by telling ourselves and other people that ''it's just the way I am,'' or by listing all the ''good reasons'' why we couldn't possibly do something new and different. We act as though we have no choice in the matter, we are doomed to follow our tastes and preferences no matter how limiting these might be in our lives. My oatmeal was going to be an experiment in giving myself a choice.

As I sat and ate my oatmeal that morning, I remembered a time many years before when I complained to my friend Joan that my wife always cut her hair short, even though I liked it better long. Specifically, my complaint was that ''nothing I can say or do seems to change her mind about it, and get her to do it my way.'' (Somehow that didn't seem so selfish and self-centered to me back then.)

Joan said she would tell me what to do about it, and I was thrilled. I had feared she would just say something like ''get over it and let your wife decide how she wants to wear her hair.''

''Next time she gets her hair cut,'' Joan explained, ''you have to tell her that you like it.'' Aha! The wheels turned in my head, as I thought about how that might work. Maybe this would trick her into thinking that I liked it short, then she'd grow it long just to spite me. What a delightfully manipulative strategy!

I was about to tell Joan that she was brilliant when she interrupted my thoughts. She must have guessed what I was thinking. ''You have to tell her you like it, and you have to mean it.''

That stopped me short. This was some kind of trick, and not the manipulative trick I was expecting to get her to grow her hair. This trick was on me. How could I like it, if I didn't like it? Joan seemed to be suggesting that I had a choice in the matter. She even had the nerve to suggest that maybe I could change my judgment, instead of wasting my time getting someone else to change their appearance. She dared to think that my personal preferences were not the ultimate guide to life. She was right, of course.

It worked. I said I liked it, and I meant it. Many years later, it's even shorter and I still like it.

The oatmeal wasn't so bad either, but that might be the result of another deep lesson about life that I learned that day: Just about anything tastes good with enough maple syrup on it.

Larry Cohen
phone: 617-713-0568

email: larjack@playfulparenting.com

Larry Cohen
1680A Beacon Street | Brookline, MA 02445 | Tel/Fax: 617-713-0568

email: larjack@playfulparenting.com