#10: Why We Do Things Even When We Know They’re Not Good For Us

So the kids and I are sitting in the car waiting for Mike to grab a smoothie for Bella, when a car pulls into the parking spot beside us, and Bella notices that the woman is doing something she hasn’t seen before. “Why is that lady doing that?” “What?” “She’s doing that with the fire.” I look, and I see. The woman is smoking. It’s now time to have thatconversation.

I tell Bella it’s something that some people do, not everyone, and that it’s stinky, dirty, gross, bad for you, makes you sick, makes your teeth yucky….to which she responds, staring blankly out the window, “Uh-huh.” It’s then that I realize what she must be thinking: “Then why would some people choose to do it?” That is much harder to explain.

Why do we continue to do things that we know are bad for us? If I look at my “vices,” wine and desserts, mainly, I would have to say it’s because at the (literal) end of the day, I “need” something to look forward to and unwind with. If I take those things away, I feel like I’m denying myself some of the truly simple pleasures, almost as if I’m punishing myself. Is that what it feels like to a smoker who denies himself a cigarette?

I know that often it is not so much “the thing” that we need so much, but something deeper that is manifested in “the thing.” So let’s see if that works for my wine and desserts example. If I think about the time of day I normally indulge in these vices, say between 7 and 10 in the evening, what else is going on in my head? Well, that’s easy… The house is FINALLY getting quiet and cleaned up. I often literally take a deep breath and feel like I can think through a complete thought without interruption. But there are so many, many thoughts I’ve put aside to think about during this time. So it’s a less stressful time of day, and yet stressful in a different way, since now I can finally address all the day’s accumulated messages and mail and assignments. For me, the wine symbolizes the transition from mommy to professional person and grown-up among my peers. The dessert? Less deep, I think. I believe I eat dessert to bid goodbye to the kitchen and eating for the day. Dessert means, I’m satisfied, now let’s go upstairs and relax for a few minutes before sleep.

When I look at my “bad things” in this way, they don’t look so bad anymore. Unless it’s possible that I might replace the wine or dessert with other transitional but healthier habits…as I would suggest that the smoker might do with his cigarettes. I think that whenever you hear your inner voice saying, I really should stop ——ing, it’s worth looking at that “bad thing” in this deeper way: What void does the habit fill for you? Can it be replaced with something healthier? If the answer is no, for now, then at least we must all remember everything is better in moderation.

In trying to explain to Bella why someone would smoke when they know it’s bad for them, I brought it to a level she might better understand. I said that eating too many sweets can make you fat, but we still like to eat sweets sometimes, so on occasion we make choices to have something we maybe shouldn’t because it’s hard to resist. It’s such a big, big concept!

I consider this the first of many conversations we will have on the topic, and for just broaching the subject, I think it went pretty well.

Here’s to 2011. May we fill all our various voids!