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Mary Oliver on How Habit Gives Shape to Our Inner Lives


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“The patterns of our lives reveal us. Our habits measure us.”

Habit is that peculiar life-force that both obscures and illuminates the crucial difference between routine and ritual“We are spinning our own fates, good or evil,” William James wrote more than a century ago in his timeless treatise on the subject. But the greatest meditation on habit I’ve ever encountered comes not from the legendary psychologist and philosopher but from a most beloved poet: Mary Oliver, who knows a great deal about the habits of heart and mind that both help us be fully alive and make sense of loss.

In one section of the altogether soul-stretching Long Life: Essays and Other Writings (public library), Oliver considers the mesmerism of habit — a peculiar manifestation of rhythm — and how it frames and paces the rampant messiness of our lives:

In the shapeliness of a life, habit plays its sovereign role… Most people take action by habit in small things more often than in important things, for it’s the simple matters that get done readily, while the more somber and interesting, taking more effort and being more complex, often must wait for another day. Thus, we could improve ourselves quite well by habit, by its judicious assistance, but it’s more likely that habits rule us.

Habit is a paradoxical thing — at once a human invention and a core feature of nature. (The driving force behind evolution, of course, is a kind of habit — for what else is adaptation if not the honing of habit for optimal survival?) Touching ever so gently on the enduring question of free will, Oliver captures this elegantly:

The bird in the forest or the fox on the hill has no such opportunity to forgo the important for the trivial. Habit, for these, is also the garment they wear, and indeed the very structure of their body life. It’s now or never for all their vitalities — bonding, nest building, raising a family, migrating or putting on the deeper coat of winter — all is done on time and with devoted care, even if events contain also playfulness, grace, and humor, those inseparable spirits of vitality. Neither does the tree hold back its leaves but lets them flow open or glide away when the time is right. Neither does water make its own decision about freezing or not; that moment rests with the rule of temperatures.

The book:

Mary Oliver long life

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