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Is It Bad to be “Set in Your Ways”?

What's wrong with being "set in your ways"?

There is something that is often said of older single men, and it is not meant kindly: They are "set in their ways." Usually I make fun of this by pointing out that younger single men are taunted with the admonition that they need to "settle down." The two jabs at single men amuse me because, as with so many other instances of singlism, they get you coming and going. If your life has a lot of spontaneity, then you need to settle down; if you have a stable routine, then you are "set in your ways." (Single women contend with their own version - for example, they are sometimes seen either as promiscuous or as poor things who don't get any.)

Today, though, I have a different take on the "set in your ways" rebuke: What's wrong with having a routine and liking it?

I've been thinking about this because I just got back from a cross-country trip in which many of my usual routines were disrupted. There are times when I love that about traveling - ending up in a whole different place on a different schedule with different people, vistas, foods, cultures, and customs.

The recent trip wasn't one of those times. I was at a meeting of a working group in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The intellectual content of the meeting was terrific, as were many of the participants, but we were holed up in a windowless conference room for more than a dozen hours over two days. We were not even let loose into the natural light for our lunch break. I missed the sunlight and the fresh air.

I'm a late-night person. Always have been. (Really, from infancy, according to my parents' reports.) But our meetings started at 8 a.m. East Coast time, which is 5 a.m. "my" time, and now start counting backwards for the time it takes to get up and get to the meeting...

I did my graduate work in Cambridge. Parts of the city are charming and I usually delight in my return visits. But the meetings were in the numbered-buildings section, with no character and no green leafy things anywhere in sight. Dreary, dreary, dreary. Cambridge also has some wonderful restaurants but I was too wiped out after the first full day of meetings to do any hunting or gathering, and too economically-challenged to spring for the extra night of a hotel room so I could take the Red Line to the vibrant and savory parts of the city later on.

One of the joys of single life - especially for people like me who are not only single but also live solo - is that you have a lot of room to arrange your life the way you like it. That could mean a lot of routine or a lot of spontaneity or anything in between. For me, it's a bit of both. Take dinner, for example. Unless I have plans to meet someone, the timing is totally unpredictable. But the beginning of the day is something else entirely. I always want to check my e-mail, first thing. Then I check out the New York Times online, then the Huffington Post, and often the Psych Today blogs, too. Some of that will lead me elsewhere. What I'm doing is getting a sense of what's going on in my world, and in the world-at-large. Only then am I ready to settle comfortably and happily into my work and all the rest.

My trip disrupted that routine, too. I didn't bring a laptop because I was trying to fit everything into carry-on's, and I wasn't going to get up any earlier than I already had to in order to access the public computer at the hotel.

I don't mean to imply that any of what I experienced amounted to a hardship. It was all minor stuff. Plus, I'm grateful to have been invited to the meeting; it was a valuable and enlightening experience. My point is simply this: What's so bad about having a routine and liking it? What's wrong with being "set in your ways"?

One of my uncles was bereft at first when his wife died. The two of them were married for a lifetime and did everything together. But they were very different. He was easygoing and calm. His wife - not so much. He followed her lead while she was well, going wherever she wanted whenever she wanted, as often as she wanted. I remember asking him, sometime into his widowhood, how he was doing. He began to describe his day - how he'd take his time making breakfast, reading the paper, and making his way through the rest of the day on his own schedule.

I knew he still grieved for his wife, and missed her every day. But now he was set in his ways. They were his ways. And there was a real comfort to that.

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