Could the young but realize how soon they will become mere walking bundles of habits, they would give more heed to their conduct while in the plastic state.

This is from Chapter 4: “Habit” of William James’s Principles of Psychology. I assign the chapter to my freshmen right before Thanksgiving when many of them return home for the first time since going away to college. Their assignment is to use James’s essay as the philosophical backdrop for their return to the routine of family life: seize the very first possible opportunity to act on every resolution you make, and on every emotional prompting you may experience in the direction of the habits you aspire to gain.  I ask students to look at their lives in light of this idea—and to change some entrenched behavior in the pursuit of what James calls “higher possibilities.”

The change they choose to make can be solitary or interactive, and it can be—indeed should be—minor in nature. It is from small habits, as James says, that our lives are shaped.  No one, I tell them, is to know that they are making the change. Watching how others react is part of the exercise.

The assignment produces small but significant epiphanies. One student decided to get up early rather than sleep until noon as she usually did, and discovered that things happened in the morning in her household that surprised her. Another student cleared the table after dinner for the first time in his life, and saw his mother dissolve in tears at having him help her. Another student talked with a younger sibling and found that he had more in common with this member of the family than with anyone else he knew: a good friend had been lurking under the guise of a negligible younger brother. Another student discovered that his grandfather, always taciturn and remote, had, when prompted, extraordinary stories to tell about his service in World War II and seemed to become a different person when telling them.

The assignment has elicited some of the most vivid and emotive writing I have gotten from students. It has also demonstrated to them the truism that unseen possibilities lie under their noses.

Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.

Paula Marantz Cohen’s new book, Of Human Kindness: What Shakespeare Teaches Us About Empathy, will be published next month.


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