On the hobgoblin that is “personal preference”

A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines. — Emerson

It is part of human nature to want to understand the world. We scan our surroundings for patterns, and when a pattern is detected, it is placed into a greater pattern — a conceptual schema — that allows us to derive meaning about our environment. This schema, in turn, empowers us to manipulate that part of the universe that falls within our reach.

This process includes, necessarily, a search for consistency. We need some things to be fixed parts of our lives, and of our worldview, in order to have a solid ground upon which we might build the framework of our understanding.

But the search for consistency can lead to an overwhelmingly strong desire for the comfort of predictability, which subsequently can effect a lifestyle narrowly focused on the preservation of personal preferences.

Most of us know people who are imprisoned in this sterile world. They tend to eat the same things, wear the same types of clothes, engage in the same hobbies, follow the same routines, talk about the same narrow range of subjects. They don’t like change, and they don’t like having their preferences foiled. Sometimes, they use their preferences as a weapon — knowingly or unknowingly — in a way that can impose on those around them who are less aggressive in protecting or asserting their own preferences. Often, these preferences are a pretext for, and justification of, a lazy lifestyle, when the subject is unwilling to own up to his laziness. In many cases, their preferences are so deeply and unreflectively assumed that they are blind to the irritation generated in those too civil to confront the occasionally negative aspects of such a preference-driven lifestyle.

I’m growing increasingly weary with this personality type. I know a few people who behave like this. They may have goals and aspirations, but they are, on balance, unwilling to do what is necessary to achieve them — because they are so strongly disinclined from stepping out of their self-defined prison. So they rationalize their present situation in such a way that militates against a change of strategy that would upset their psychological comfort.

I’m the first to admit that there are things I prefer. But, I’ll always try something new or think about things in a new way. Too many won’t do that. And that’s a shame, because even though a bit of consistency is a good thing, too much consistency locks us into the white-bread world of our own devising, from which there is no escape … only the emptiness that comes from existential boredom.

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