Overcoming Familiarity’s Contempt

I found my first stumbling block for this Depth Year challenge in an unexpected manifestation. Two weeks ago, a typical work day avalanched into a slippery slope of ill health: muscle fatigue, fever, malaise. As I realized the culprit was influenza H3n2–and there was no way out but through, I initially thought with my Pollyanna self, “Oh great! I’ll get some unplanned Depth Days out of this!” (I’m always craving big blocks of time to spend as I wish at home, because they are a rare treat.) If you’ve had the flu this season, you know what a naive thought that was. Sure, there are sharper pains in the quiver of human ailment, such as the searing kind found in strep throat, or the merciless wringing out of food poisoning, or the pain of childbirth; but nothing I’ve ever faced has been so heavy for so long. It felt like I had been and would be sick forever. Lead blanket on my lungs, energy barely sufficient to crawl downstairs and wrangle up some food, spiking fever thumbing its nose at attempts to tame it with Tylenol. I felt as if a truck carrying tons of water or concrete had run me over, backed up beeping, and flattened me again and again. Thankfully, my kids were at their dad’s for the weekend. And in contrast to the recent bustling glory of Christmas break when my sister and her whole family were visiting from Florida, my house was especially quiet.

I attempted to entertain my mind while my body submerged into purgatory, quickly consuming a book I’d looked forward to reading for an entire year (East of Eden, by John Steinbeck), watching The Crown, keeping up on social media, even writing my first two blogposts here. Day 1 and 2 were tolerable, Day 3 and 4 were miserable, and by Day 5, the straitjacket effect of being locked into the same routine really started to get to my psyche. I wanted out, but it seemed as if decent health was nowhere on the horizon. Venturing outside in a stupor, I stumbled to the home of a doctor in the neighborhood, melting into tears on his doorstep. I asked if he could check my lungs–honestly wondering if this flu might be killing me. He donned a mask, brought out his stethoscope and oximeter, and declared that my lungs and oxygen levels were actually okay and I would turn a corner eventually. His kind wife sent me off with warm chicken noodle soup in a Tupperware.

As I walked home, hands warm from encircling the soup, but coughing deeply from the exertion of exercising for the first time in a week, I could suddenly taste a strong disdain for going back into my house. My robin-egg blue bedroom with its string of white lights around the window that is so cozy and welcoming took on the sheen of a jail cell, and I almost spat with disgust at the book I’d just finished. My bed seemed a coffin. I hated everything in my fridge. The thought of another “Depth Day” in that hell made me want to run to the hills. I realized that everything my illness had touched seeped with the poison of familiarity. There was too much of the same. “Familiarity breeds contempt” flashed continuously in my mind, like a neon sign at a seedy hotel. It may seem unrelated, but I discerned with panic that my whole Depth Year was at stake: if a crash course in spending a chunk of time with only the things in my home unleashed such a torrent of contempt, how could I spend a whole year pursuing this relationship? I was terribly altered by my quarantine, almost cracked in the fevered head. What I needed, desperately, was a cold splash of novelty, something unexpected, a new scent or sight or taste.

Which is what I’m trying to avoid, this year. That craving for newness, the high from the hit of a purchase, the need for novelty. Have you ever felt that worry, when a place, idea or relationship has become so utterly stagnant that you can’t stand the thought of another day of the same?

Well, gratefully, I found my sanity, and a solution. It helped that pretty soon after I was able to leave my home for a few hours at a time. But I also realized that you don’t have to buy things to find newness…you can simply approach the familiar with a twist to give it a crisp, revived feel. The next five days of recovery were spent without breaking any of my Depth Year rules, but they purposefully radiated freshness and creativity sufficient to diffuse the suffocating cloud of sameness. I played a gig in Logan, an hour and a half away, and decided to stay in a cheap hotel instead of commuting two nights in a row. That cured my lingering disdain for my own bed real quick. I interacted with people I haven’t seen in a while, and played my horn with renewed vigor. I meditated at a temple in Logan, which is not my usual place. On Sunday evening, reunited with my kids, we hosted a big competition game night, with the two families we always play games with plus three completely new ones. The new mix of personalities and the unique points system I created gave it a fresh feel and everyone had a blast. Monday and Tuesday, the two Depth Days I had originally scheduled in my calendar, were vacation days from school, and instead of hanging around doing the typical, we had a cooking competition to discover new recipes (from recipe books I already owned) and hiked in a winter wonderland to a waterfall.

The strange aversion I found to such undeviating sameness while sick may not be something you identify with, but I think the solution for exiting the funk can help you get past stuck spots during your Depth Year…or in a stale relationship, job, or place in life. When you start to feel claustrophobic and limited by your parameters, think outside of the box and find new ways of doing old things. Go places. Breathe some fresh air. Set creative guidelines, like only being allowed to read this certain book while in the tub, or teach that old hobby to someone else, or come up with a whole new set of rules for a certain holiday. Our minds do crave variety, but going deep can introduce as much new terrain as going wide. The trick is to keep moving. And go get your flu shot if you haven’t already!

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10 thoughts on “Overcoming Familiarity’s Contempt

  1. Hi Mary. I’m encountering this phenomenon too, this contempt for sameness. My second book of the year is one I’ve read before — I know there’s much more to get out of it — and at times, I want to close it up and start a new book. I’m chalking this up to being too accustomed to having novelty on tap, so I’m treating that weary feeling as just one of the first (of probably many) obstacles to getting the deeper value out of things. But I am determined not to give in to the allure of novelty. I try to remember how grateful I’d be for that book if other books weren’t so easily accessible. It’s a skill like any other, renouncing frivolous novelties like starting a new book every time I feel like it, so I’m trying to focus on how good I’ll be at it at the end of the year.

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    • Exactly. It helps to tell myself that I’m gaining a new skill, of overcoming that weariness–that will hopefully be visible by the end of the year. And it’s nice to know there is solidarity with others, like yourself, who are doing a Depth Year as well. I really loved your most recent post, and have had many of the same ideas as your mother. She sounds like a wonderful lady! I’m also going to try to eat up old stores of food and focus on existing relationships rather than new ones. Mine your acre of diamonds! 🙂

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