Musings on Routine, Told Through Pizza Mania
My tipping point was the spots. Not one, or two, but an angry cluster across my cheek. To an outsider they posed as a mere acne flare up. Yet I knew it could only be one thing: the result of a fierce oven pizza habit. I had developed it over lockdown, and it had to stop.
When I disclosed my uneasy new habit to my friends, I was met with a chorus of habits in a similar vein. ‘Me too!’ they laughed, one-by-one, admitting to absurd bedtimes, compulsive laps in the park and listening to Black Sabbath on repeat while pumping iron and screaming their ex’s name. My most sympathetic moment however, came when I was exiting M&S with a pal, and confessing my newfound pizza-mania. ‘Me too!’ he cried in response, and opened his shopping bag with a flourish only to reveal a woodfired beauty lying there.
Some of the activities my near and dear had undertaken fell into the category of habit, others routine. A habit is formed by a step-by-step system: cue, craving, response and reward. However, habits cannot be formed unless you’re can fulfil the craving that craves. They’re very ability-centric, habits. You couldn’t very well get into the habit of riding a water buffalo through London, for example, simply because even if you had the craving, there would never be enough opportunity to satisfy it.
At a glance, routine can be defined similarly, for similar they are. Awareness is the main difference between habit and routine. Habits often manifest as automatic urges whereas routines demand more conscious effort. Both can be born out of pivotal changes in life, such as loss or trauma. And at the beginning of 2020, I found myself experiencing a universal trauma: the loss of everyday life as I knew it.
With more time for the ‘self’ – self-love, self-loathing – and less time for the other, there was nothing to do but observe ourselves. I had to sit with myself, the real version that I am alone, not the performative one with the mask I put on daily. This is a different kind of authenticity, or ‘real me’, not the kind that influencers are always banging on about on heavily filtered photos. Nor the sort that people on reality tv use to excuse bad behaviour. And certainly not the ‘I’m just being real’ that folk roll out when they’re just being plain rude. So, how might I behave outside the safety of my schedule?
Jean-Paul Sartre, the writer, wrote that ‘humans are condemned to be free’. Once thrown into the world, we are responsible for everything we do, and that is the burden of living. Its anxiety inducing in itself, and it is no wonder that we look for routines to structure life; to give our freedom shape and definition. To know nothing is there to save us but ourselves is a terrifying prospect, so we create excuses, whether that be playing tennis every Tuesday, or feeling satisfied when we catch the same train every day to work. But trauma, including the sudden trauma of a worldwide health threat, can combust old routines and birth new habits.
My dear friend Sartre, also said that our existential freedom naturally produces anguish. But as much as being born might have been painful, I can’t say I remember it being worse than being stuck inside for 18 months as an adult.
I would argue that staying at home for years creates a kind of anguish too, but this is the anguish of entrapment. I hate to say it, but Sarte’s theory doesn’t fit in a lockdown. Sometimes the burden of life doesn’t come from infinite freedom, but from being rather powerless.
The lockdown presented a philosophical riddle: what do we become if we are born free but live enclosed? We turn, of course, to the same crutches we use in the outside world. We carefully develop new routines to give our new lives new shape. Or rather, the rational mind does that. The anguished part responds by acquiring any habit whose repetitive element fools us into feeling momentarily in control.
At first glance, a recurring oven pizza addiction can seem futile, pointless, and an incredibly poor source of nutrients. It was my personal decline into carb overload. However, I would also argue it was a routine that became a bad habit despite the best of intentions. I needed a way to feel autonomy in a world that was closing in on all of us. And so, I unconsciously went in search of that freedom, doing whatever I could. Some developed an addiction to Duolingo, some stole other people’s post to feel less lonely, others pursued intensive courses of Flamenco, much to the chagrin of their downstairs neighbours. It is often the little things that ground us most. In my case, it was something edible, spherical and cheesy.