“Why do you put the straw wrapper into your drink?”
I was at a bar recently and was talking to a friend of a friend I had just met. She ordered a rum and coke and put the paper wrapper left on the top of the straw by the bartender into her drink. “Isn’t that gross?”
“Eh, I don’t know,” she said, pushing the paper to the bottom of the drink with her straw. “I’ve always done that.”
“But ... why? Do you eat it at the end or something?”
“What? That’s disgusting, why would I do that?” She slurped on her rum, coke, and paper.
“You tell me, you’re the one drinking paper.”
“I’ve just always done that, it’s my thing.”
“It’s your ‘thing’?”
“Yeah, I did it with sodas when I was younger, too. I’ve just always done it.”
Suffice it to say, the woman and I couldn’t see eye to eye on this, and I’m fairly certain we won’t be having another conversation. I started thinking about that justification, though.
I’ve just always done that, it’s my thing.
When you're young, you can be convinced to believe anything. You can even convince yourself without knowing it. You see one older person you believe to be “cool” doing one very specific thing, and your inexperienced mind automatically associates that action with what being “cool” is.
When I was about five or six, I convinced myself for months that scowling when you weren't angry was super cool, simply because I saw a guy in a leather jacket and a flannel shirt scowl. This was the early ‘90s. That guy looked like a cool, awesome, with-it dude, as if he had just started awesomely scowling one day, and Someone Important was impressed by it and gave him a Cool Award and the official Cool Uniform (leather jacket, flannel shirt) along with it. He made it. If I started scowling, maybe I could too.
I eventually stopped scowling so much, but had I kept scowling just because I had always been a scowler, I would be a RADICALLY different person. Everyone around me would have believed I was constantly angry. Really awesome, but really angry, too. I would have been the most awesome loner in school.
I would also be called "Russell" instead of "Sean.” In kindergarten, I got it in my head that I wasn't going to answer to Sean anymore. My middle name was "Russell" (still is, actually), which sounded like "wrestle" to me (and still does), and I liked wrestling (still do) so I wanted be called “Russell” instead of “Sean.” It sounded incredibly bad-ass in my five-year-old mind, like the name the leader of a five-person, demographically diverse superhero squad on a Saturday morning cartoon show would have. That was all the reasoning I needed.
While I’m opening up like this, I also tried to eat grass. No, that's not a pseudonym for experimenting with drugs as a teenager. When I was about four, I wanted to know what grass tasted like. I saw cows eat it, and they couldn’t get enough of it, so I ate it. It was disgusting.
Over the course of my life, I have convinced myself of the merits of a number of mind-numbingly stupid courses of action, and I would be a scowling, grass-eating Russell had I kept up with any of them. Especially if solely for the sake of tradition.
So if someone does a thing simply because they've been doing that thing since they were young, I have to ask them why they continue to breastfeed. Or wear a diaper. They did when they were young, why should they stop? "Yeah, I wear special underwear I poop into whenever I want. That's just how I've always done it, since I was young. Is that a weird thing to do? I don't know, whatever. Are you going to eat your asparagus?"
At a certain point, I did realize that I was capable of bad ideas, but for a long, LONG time before that, that just wasn't a thought that had ever occurred to me. Anything I thought was the way to go was OBVIOUSLY the way to go, because at that age I wasn't even aware of the concept of alternative choices, let alone having had any of them presented to me. "Should I eat this grass?” wasn't a question, because "No" wasn't a concept to me yet.
Realizing that is a big part of growing up. For the first two years of your life, you are given absolutely anything you want, period. Luckily, you only want food, a clean diaper, and sleep. You (usually) have two grown adults wholly dedicated to giving you whatever you want whenever you want it. As you get older, you become more mentally and physically capable, and are expected to fend for yourself. What's more, you discover that you're not going to get whatever you want for the rest of your life.
This moment of discovery always coincides with the moment a parent realizes that they have no intention of spending the rest of their lives entirely doting on you. Loving, supporting, and maddening you, yes, but continuing to spend the entirety of their thought process on your wants and needs? Not happening. For some, this discovery comes early. For others, it might not come till their teens. And for others, it doesn't happen till adulthood, or not at all.
It’s when you realize that not only are you not going to get everything you want for the rest of your life, but you’re the only one who’s really going to care if you get anything you want at all that you start to be aware of the concept of fallibility. You start to judge your decisions against their repercussions.
I ate grass, and no one stopped me, even though I hated it. Why didn’t anyone stop me? Isn’t that their job? Why aren’t they doing their job? Why aren’t they stopping me from doing things I hate? Why am I doing things I hate doing? Why in the world am I eating grass? How did I ever think this was a good idea? Either those cows are playing a really elaborate prank on me, or I’m capable of making bad decisions. This changes everything.
Doing things simply because you’ve always done them is a terrible way to live your life. Imagine a Japanese immigrant trying to eat a sirloin steak with chopsticks, or a customer service representative dealing with problems by screaming until someone puts him in time out. At some point, a person has to realize that they are capable of making bad decisions or being wrong. If this realization is followed by a hard, self-aware look at one’s actions and choices, it can lead to maturity, growth, and happiness. If this realization is followed by shoving one’s proverbial fingers into one’s proverbial ears, it usually leads to pushing paper to the bottom of one’s cocktail glass.