Thursday, 2 June 2011

Becoming accustomed, and why it can be a bad idea.

In the end, there's really nothing one can't get used to.  Which is the trap that often makes all the difference in life.  Even in the most dreary of situations one can find something to make it tolerable.  And that is the worst opiate of all: the one that takes away the belief that you deserve something better out of life.  The one that allows you to tolerate even things that are objectively (and even subjectively) wholly unsatisfying.
None of this is, of course, a huge insight.  St Bernard of Clairvaux says something similar in the De Consideratione.  Even during the Second World War a returning serviceman asked himself in an army annual "Do I want to go?".  An imprisoned Meursault reaches a similar epiphany in L'Etranger (although in fairness, Camus was making basically the opposite point).
I learned this in about 1995 when I was doing my final year in high school.  The final year is always difficult.  From the point of view of the student and (more importantly) their parents this year controls the future.  Astonishing value is set by each of the 10-12 major assignments and 5-6 examinations which establish one’s final ranking.  This saw many students become nothing if not neurotic bookworms.  Every waking hour would be spent poring over textbooks and essays, editing and re-editing as if to disprove the law of diminishing returns.  Unsurprisingly, many of us became kind of obsessed with time management.  So obsessed, in fact, that the actual time usage became a little less efficient.  As the pressure built, the less confident (like me) almost despaired.  Our every tiny misstep, we believed, had already doomed us to failure, shame, and attending Deakin University.
Human nature, however, is always to make life palatable.  Small pleasures (Camus: "les plus pauvres et les plus tenaces de mes joies", I think), therefore, acquired a disproportionate value.  In my case, this took the form of free time on Friday between getting home (5pm) and finishing dinner (8:30pm).  In this time I could walk the dog, play golf on the computer, and simply be "off".  That spare time - three hours or so - was enough to let me get used to year 12.  It was, one might say, a successful formula.
The problem is, people generally aren’t satisfied with successful formulas.  Once you develop one, you soon begin to push the idea further and further.  After a while, you're not so much building on success as going for reduction ad absurdum.  I learned this in my first year at university.  I was desperate to get marks sufficient to transfer into the law course and hit the books particularly hard.  At the same time, I had the student's challenge of living on not a lot of money.  Each week’s grocery budget was about $12-$15 (the quality was not high).  Socialising, even if I'd been temperamentally suited to it (which I'm not) was rarely an option.  Each day began with reading a textbook over breakfast, being on campus all day, and studying again till 2am.  I came to see my pre-existing friendships as distractions and let them atrophy.  I already felt like an outsider, and so I made few connections with other people.  Human nature, though, won't be denied forever.  You begin to make things palatable.  You convince yourself that Home Brand Irish Stew represents the pinnacle of cuisine.  Pathetically, you almost believe have a kind of friend in the form of the voices on the radio.
Soon enough this begins to feel normal, even kind of satisfying.  You continue it after entering the workforce and actually assuming adulthood.  You work long and longer days.  You relax on your own on Friday nights.  Sometimes you see your own family or pick up a hobby for a few weeks (dieting, gym).  Still, at some level you know that you’re going days - weeks - without speaking to anyone who isn't a business connection or a blood relation.
And yet you do it, because there's enough that brings you pleasure to keep you from noticing what you've become.  Until eventually, improbably, you do form a connection with someone.  Someone who shows you just how shut off, lonely, and drab your life has become.  Who shows you that you don't have to live like this.  And that maybe you might even be able to change.

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