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Weeding, Seeding and Place-Keeping

A Story with Three Steps and a Coda
Anne Dalke

June 2007  

Step One: Weeding Our Character

When Freeman Hrabowski, president of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, was awarded an honorary degree at the Haverford College 2007 Commencement ceremony, he told the graduates (including my son Sam),

"Watch your thoughts, for they become your words. Watch your words, for they become your actions. Watch your actions, for they become your habits. Watch your habits, for they become your character. Your character has everything to do with who you are, not only when people can see you, but what will you do when no one is watching? There is your character. So watch your thoughts, they become your words, your words your actions, your actions your habits, your habits your character. Watch your character. It becomes your DESTINY."

I really do not like this message (which others have since told me is an old chestnut). It seems to indicate a fear of randomness. It seems to advocate policing the unconscious, putting a lid on the surprising--and sometimes very productive--unpredictabilities that show up in that underground river.


Step Two: Seeding Our Freedom


A few weeks later, searching for some good summer reading, I came upon a new biography of one of my heroes, the 19th century pragmatist philosopher William James--along with a catalogue of the most memorable quotes attributed to him, including

"Sow an action, and you reap a habit; sow a habit and you reap a character; sow a character and reap a destiny."


I much prefer this version: because it's inviting, rather than policing; because it's about the possibilities of casting seeds, not the need to stifle weeds....Not bad, not bad at all.

A little researching suggested that James didn't coin the aphorism; it's attributed to the 19th century English novelist Charles Reade. But James recorded it in his copy of an essay he himself had written about the productive power of habit:

As Louis Menand has argued, the wide appeal of James's pragmatism lies in its essential claim that people are the subjects of their own destinies, able to change their behavior according to life experience....As James states in an 1898 lecture, "Beliefs, in short, are really rules for action; and the whole function of thinking is but one step in the production of habits of action." According to James, habits are ways in which individuals make choices based on their own practical experience....

Trained in medicine, James understands habit first as a physiological phenomenon, with ethical and moral consequences. "[H]abit," he writes, "is nothing but a new pathway of discharge formed in the brain, by which certain incoming currents ever after tend to escape." Repeating certain actions creates these "pathways" so that habitual actions lack impediment. Habit, therefore, fosters skill, speed, and decisiveness (all of which Jamesian philosophy promotes). Perhaps most importantly for James [and certainly most important for me], cultivating habit allows the intellectual spirit to grow; habit frees up the mind for thought. He writes: "The more of our daily life we can hand over to the effortless custody of automatism, the more our higher powers of mind will be set free for their own proper work"....Habit...does not stifle the mind....Rather, habit opens a door to intellectual freedom and ease.

Step Three: Keeping History in Place

The article which told me all of this, Liesl M. Olson's "Gertrude Stein, William James, and habit in the shadow of war" (Twentieth Century Literature, Fall 2003), offered, in turn, an extended meditation on the limitations of habit. According to Olson, James celebrated "habit as a result of the freedom to choose, and the subsequent indication of a fully formed character." For him, it was a means towards self-improvement, understood primarily in terms of productive action.

But also inherent in the habitual is its role as a "conservative agent," a stabilizing necessity in the overwhelming world of pure experience. James wrote that, "taken as it does appear, our universe is to a large extent chaotic"--and habits represented for him "an attempt to stabilize and protect against uncertainty."

For James's famous student, the American modernist novelist and poet Gertrude Stein, the habitual became the linchpin of a lifelong pleasure in repetitive words and actions. Living in France during World War II, Stein relied on habit as a "protective shield against too much violence"; it allowed her to avoid "confronting the mass destruction and death intensifying all around her....Habit establishes fixed places both for individuals and society as a whole....habit is place keeping."

Her literary experimentation likewise centered on the creation of a continuous present, a refusal of the forward movement of time. One critic has suggested that "Stein was by temperament and conviction 'conservative' in the word's broadest sense: she was opposed to change." Other critics have argued that her repetitive words were defenses against despair, irrationally hopeful in denying all logic of cause-and-effect, in refusing to be shaped into narratives with historical explanations. Stein's "plotlessness and innovative wordplay" have been read as her "rebellion against the teleological telling of history," for which she substitutes a "wandering mode" of representing "cyclic or repetitive time."

In her extended description of the "crucial utility" of repetitive habit, Olson constructs a damning critique of its political inadequacy. In Stein's case, the anchor of habit came to figure

a dangerous kind of self-absorption, an extremely problematic escapism, cloaked as pacifism....Habits, as a defense...enable a dangerous blindness to what...demanded action...Stein's World War II writings implicate her modernism in a paralyzing and troubling preoccupation with the daily. Habit...creates "an existence suspended in time"...a refusal to accept "momentous" change.

Olson calls Stein's World War II writings "nostalgic, in the sense that they resist, even rebuke, the forward movement of time." What an ironic turn to the radical empiricism and pragmatism both of Freeman Hrabowski and of William James: an optimism earned at the cost of denial of historical progress.

Coda: Opening a Door, Building a Floor


Where has this extended meditation taken me? From the insistent "watching" of Freeman Hrabowski, through the optimistic "sowing" of William James and the pleasurable "repeating" of Gertrude Stein, to my own renewed awareness of how frightening change can be. In bringing about novel and progressive possibilities, it also necessitates, of course, all sorts of breakage; in the creation of something new, some of the old will inevitably be destroyed.

My newly coined aphorism tries to remove some of the angst associated with watching and sowing, by replacing them with the gentler actions of letting arise what will, then attending to it:

Let thought arise, and so open a door.
Revise the thought, and build a floor.
Stand there for a bit, and attend.
Is that a useful thought? What do you think?

Other Open Doors on Serendip:

William James and Pragmatism
William James and American Functional Psychology
Louis Menand, The Metaphysical Club
Making the Unconscious Conscious, and Vice Versa
The Grace of Revision and the Profit of "Unconscious Cerebration"



Sunwoong Kim's picture

I agree that you said at step two

I first knew that "Watch your thought ~~ become destiny. " a quote at movie' The Iron Lady ' and I just saw William James's quote "Sow your action ~~ destiny. " I totally agree that the second one is better without fear.

I just read that two parts and I did not read other parts.

yeh. that's it. I was just wonder to say that I agree your opinion.

Kevin's picture

Watching for Responsibility

Perhaps the message Freeman Hrabowski was trying to convey was that we each have some responsibility in who, or what, we become. To a certain degree, we must grow where we are planted, however we often have a choice in where we put our roots. While watching may be considered a negative, restrictive word, it really depends on who is watching and why the watching occurs. In a positive sense, if we desire some insight concerning our own lives, we may freely choose to watch ourselves. Our watching may lead us to a deeper understanding, and then perhaps we may make informed choices in our future that result in change. By watching and making these choices, we are assuming responsibility for ourselves. I see this as a positive view, because we are always free to choose to watch ourselves, or not. In a negative sense, I also see a danger if others were to watch over us to restrict our freedom to make choices for ourselves.

I believe it was Martin Luther who said, "You can't stop the birds flying over your head, but you can stop them [from] nesting in your hair!" The issue that resonates in me in the excerpt from Hrabowski's Haverford College 2007 Commencement ceremony oration seems to be, "Who will choose, and freely accept responsibility, for what happens to me?" From my experience, those who choose to refuse, but are able to accept responsibility for themselves often end up becoming the responsibility of someone else (or worse, the responsibility of some social program, institution, or agency). Therefore an individuals’ free choice to refuse responsibility often leads to a loss of freedom for that individual.

Without any other context or knowledge concerning Freeman Hrabowski's message, I choose to view his recommendation "to watch" in the positive light of encouraging others to accept responsibility for their lives, and therefore live in freedom.

jody's picture

watching and attending

i agree w/anne that watching is a heavy word--carries policing and also splitting--who is the self that watches the self--who's the watcher and the watched? habit also suggests to me this splitting, or maybe a way to soothe or smooth out or cover over splitting. i'm intrigued by the relationship between watching and attending; seems key, but not sure why. attending is a full body and mind experience maybe, it's almost an embodied question--?

Judie's picture

Habits and character

I really like it Anne- and have some other thoughts as well.

The whole valorization of change or of stability continues to be a non-starter for me. Change for change's sake leaves one no sense of safety- I'm reminded of how it must feel to have Alzheimer's- constant change and newness because nothing is remembered to be able to provide stability and safety. On the other hand, stability is just a bit too close to rigidity and close-mindedness.

So I like your aphorism since it gets away from both of those (though "floors" give a sort of immmovable feel- but I can't think of anything better). I also like that you stayed away from habits and character. There used to be a Sunday school song that went something like "Be careful little children what you hear" and repeated that phrase with see and think as well, with each verse ending in something that implied going to hell if you weren't careful enough. It used to scare me to death thinking some thought might come into my head that would mean I was damned for all eternity (the Methodist training of the old EUB's was brutal).

Yet my favorite times are when my thoughts are just sort of flying in unplanned directions, often productive ones. That can be a habit- as Wil implies- a habit of process (and making time in one's life to allow that process to happen), but habits can also be limiting. Habits tend to become rote, and at that point, serendipity and emergence seem less likely.

The whole character thing is an issue for me. Character also implies a solidity, if not stolidity. It seems set, as if once you got it, you're never going to be questioned (nor question yourself?) again. Sad.

And yet, most grad speeches say something positive about character. Indeed, I was at Hershey Park last week and a whole class of high school seniors were all wearing the same turquoise shirt announcing "Character is what you do when no one is looking". Yet when we think of our children, we want them to believe in honesty and social justice and doing good (at least I do) and so what is that other than wanting them to have inherent qualities that lead them in those directions (Character?!?).

Anyway, my musings, for what they are worth, do not change the fact that I like your new aphorism, particularly the 'attending" part.


wil's picture

habits and floors


back in my early twenties i struggled, battled and finally worked through my issues with instability in my know the story; unsettling childhood, earthquakes and all. well, in my journaling i stumbled upon a mantra of sorts that i came back to over and over again hoping to make it a habit. it went something like:

    in order to move forward, you must first be standing still.

very taoist and given my interest in the tao i'm sure it is a precipitate of those hours studying the Tao Te Ching.

at the time, i was very set upon growing, changing for the better, but i did not equate movement with growth. if i was to move it had to come from a place of balance thereby facilitating purposeful gains. i even went so far as to think of my actions as scientific experiments testing the actions worked/helped, then build on them, if not, go back to the drawing board.

looking back on all that, i believe i formed a useful habit. but a habit of process, not of escapism. i'm not sure most habits are liberatory. in fact, most of my core belief - skepticism, atheism, pluralism - are counter to conservatism which i connect with habits and traditions. but your turn made me think of my own habits of process and maybe those habits have liberated my mind to grow. i haven't told myself to stand and attend in a long while. perhaps, that is what gave me the courage to become a father...a new wide-open door.


jrlewis's picture

"But, since belief is a rule

"But, since belief is a rule for action, the application of which involves further doubt and further thought, at the same time that it is a stopping-place, it is also a new starting-place for thought. That is why I have permitted myself to call it thought at rest, although thought is essentially an action."

-Charles Pierce

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