Many things make human, human. Some cite that the ability to “step away” from ourselves and exhibit hindsight or objectivity makes us human. Others state it is the ability to express empathy. One feature that is vastly overlooked, however, is the ability to create novelty in our lives, and the dual reaction that follows. We are both excited for the new, yet yearn for what we already know. The notion of “creating novelty,” in colloquial terms, is equivalent to “doing something new.” While many of the smaller, less significant features of our lives are built upon a foundation of habit, our greatest adventures come from beginning something that was once wholly unfamiliar to us. Newness breeds excitement while it also fuels a need for a reference point—it begs for a return to person or place that has, in some way, shaped the person that is experiencing the “new.” Here, I will discuss why the ability to consciously create new experience breeds a yearning for the familiar, and what a desire for the familiar means in the context of our lives.
Some of the 19th and 20th century American philosophers wrote that “true” thinking arises when our habits no longer fulfill the needs of the present moment. They argued that when our previous ways of thinking and living run into a challenge that cannot be overcome by previously learned paradigms, pure thought occurs. Here, “pure thought” will be interchangeable with “novel thought,” or the act of thinking in ways that have previously been inaccessible to us, for any number of reasons. For example, if I begin a new job as a teacher, I will realize that the ways I interpret and make sense information are different from how other people might—I may learn best through visuals, while another may learn best when he hears information. I am able to notice this difference because my new job requires me to make information accessible to a number of different learning styles. Without this requirement, I may not have been aware that different learning styles even exist. Hence, I generated novel thought about myself (discovering the way I process information) because I encountered a new setting. When life bred meets experience anew, and we are faced with the challenge of seeing new things, meeting new people, and entertaining new ideas, we generate novel thought. We begin to view and analyze the world in ways that were previously unknown to us.
Habits, though generally thought of as physical rituals, can also be defined as ways of living or interacting with others that have proven to be successful in the past, and for this reason, continued in the future. One of the most interesting habits that I have run across—both in myself and others—is the habit of “looking forward” or “counting down” to some event or other. This could be the end of a workday, final inning of a game, end of a week, month, or year, in order to reach a presumably more desirable destination in time and space. Though many are lucky enough to be engaged in jobs, activities, and circumstances that are genuinely enjoyable and/or fulfilling, the habit of “looking forward” to the end of it still persists. I may love playing softball, but I celebrate at the last out of the game. I may enjoy my job, but a feeling of joy washes over me as I clock out. I might sit in my favorite class, but when the clock ticks down, I am happy to pack my bags.
To clearly articulate the reasoning behind this habit, I can start from the following observation: of life, the following seems to be true—man seeks familiarity. The reason we seek familiarity is because experience necessitates analysis, and only so much analysis and processing can occur in-moment. Any change, experience, or “creation of novelty” merits a step away to make sense of it all; judgment cannot occur independent of experience, and experience occurs on a continuum—never in isolation.
In the sense that is being discussed, familiarity can hold two meanings: environmental, and relational. In the first, familiarity is environmental. When we are near the end of the workday, we desire to return to a space that we have come to call our own for any given period of time. When the holidays come around, we desire to be back home. In situations where we desire to be in another physical space, it is not likely that we will encounter something unfamiliar in this “place.” In the second sense, familiarity is relational. When in new situations, though presented with many new options for friends and acquaintances, we want nothing more than to be surrounded by the friends that we have either come to rely upon, or learned from.
Environmental familiarity yields a sense of physical comfort—at home, we can clearly make sense of our days at work or away at school, because we are no longer surrounded by the newness of experience. Home typically breeds a sense of normalcy in our lives, in the sense that it is from the basis of home that we judge other situations. Relational familiarity yields a sense of self-knowledge and awareness who we are as people, and how our friends and family have shaped our expectations from the new individuals in our lives. If I have been hurt in the past by an individual that resembles someone new in my life, odds are that I will not pursue the friendship. If I have things in common with a new person that I had in common with some of my best friends, odds are that I will. Experience—both good and bad—shapes our expectations and experiences with the new. Experience is the place we return to in order to make sense of these experiences.
As much as folk wisdom advises us to live life solely in the present and wholly unconcerned with the past, the only way that we are able to make sense of these “present moments” is by stepping back into what we know. The familiar has shaped the ways in which we analyze the world, and it is only by going back to this place that we will have the time and space to make sense of the unfamiliar. Newness necessitates a reference point; if we are to make sense of anything new, we must have a point from which to judge it. Experience does not occur in a vacuum, and the only way that we are able to judge something as good, bad, enjoyable, unenjoyable, worth doing again in the future, or simply what effect it had on us, is through comparison with what we are familiar with. While we may enjoy work, class, vacation, or a game, we look forward to its end in order to make sense of it, and add to our repertoire of experience. As the new fades into the familiar, and the familiar bleeds into the ways we conceptualize ourselves as people, it is key to remember that a desire for what we have come to know is not a stronghold against new experience, but perhaps may be the key that allows it to happen at all.
Image courtesy of mbell1975, Flickr Creative Commons