A spider's star

August 28, 1996|By STEPHEN VICCHIO

The chains of habit are generally too small to be felt until they are too strong to be broken.

--Samuel Johnson, ''Letters''

Sometimes the best teacher teaches only once to a single child or to a grown-up past hope.

--Loren Eiseley, ''The Star Thrower'' IN HIS ''PRINCIPLES of Psychology,'' William James calls habit ''the enormous fly-wheel of society, its most precious conservative agent.'' James knew that habit builds things. It creates virtue; it makes us good at our jobs; it turns us into dependable parents, spouses and friends. Habit secures us a place in the world, and it makes sure our place will be there tomorrow, and the next day as well.

But habit and the all-too-familiar also have an uncanny capacity to waste and to destroy. Habit, Miguel de Unamuno said, is often the first step in ceasing to be. What we have grown accustomed to, after a while, becomes the way things really are, the only way they could be. Experience marries memory, and habit becomes their offspring. When habit matures, it rarely leaves home.

The eviction of habit usually comes when someone or something comes between us Stephen Vicchio

and the habitual. Often these are traumatic events. Divorce, a death in the family, or a tragic accident involving a loved one, all have a way of reminding us that the habitual is a thin veneer we lay over the truly ephemeral nature of things. In this way, habit becomes a great deadener of pain, of hope, or sometimes of a yearning for tenderness we no longer seem to attract or deserve. These dramatic evictions of habit remind us that we do not own our place in the world, we simply borrow it for a while.

Sometimes habit is shown the door in more subtle ways, in ways that involve grace. These moments happen in the summertime when the world is full of magic and the smallest of children see it without habit. Only to a magician or a small child is the world entirely and eternally new. Only they know the secrets of change, only they know that things are always lying in wait, eager to become something else.

Returning to the sea with a small child can gently destroy the habitual. By the ocean, a slight change in routine is sufficient to destroy our daily sense of the way things are; the moment we pass out of our habits we begin to understand again the impermanence of things. At the beach this begins when a boy and his father shed their clothes and return to the sea.

Later, the two stretch out, side by side, dripping in the sun. The man begins to feel his heart beat beneath his bare chest. He remembers for the first time in six months that he has a heart. Back in the city, the heart is not something that occupies his time. Here on the beach, it is quiet enough to hear his heart slow, to listen to its return to a more natural rhythm.

A stroll with souls

In the afternoon, they walk along the beach. As they walk, the sea encroaches and recedes, while the boy, accompanied by hungry sandpipers, plays tag with the frothy surf. A moment later, he returns to his father's waiting hand, and they discover two black spots moving ahead on the beach -- their shadows. Without the habitual, the boy seems not to understand. In primitive societies the shadow was regarded as the soul prematurely let loose. The father reminds the boy that Peter Pan had a difficult time catching his shadow, the term Carl Jung used for the part of the self that remains undomesticated.

For the remainder of the afternoon they talk of dolphins, of the sun's rising and setting, and of the origins of those strange shells, looking like World War I combat helmets, tumbling up from the surf. Through all of this, the man thinks he is teaching the boy. He believes he is using habit and experience in providing the 3-year-old with a proper view of the way things are. He thinks he is helping the boy to find his place in the world.

Still later, the man is reminded by the boy that what we learn so often depends on our powers of insight. On the way back to the house, the boy finds an industrious spider who has managed to spin an impressive web beneath the boardwalk. The boy leans down to take a closer look, while the man, burdened with toys, towels and aluminum folding chairs, moves ahead. The man looks around but the boy cannot be seen. He retraces his steps and finds the 3-year-old transfixed by the spider and his creation. As the man glances at the spider, the web vibrates with a gentle breeze from the south. The boy speaks: ''Look Daddy, the spider has a wind blowing through his star.''

Stephen Vicchio teaches philosophy at the College of Notre Dame.

Pub Date: 8/28/96

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