Familiar and New

Have you seen a movie recently? Heard a song? Would you describe it as original, or did it have echoes of other movies or other songs?

Everything around us is some kind of mixture of familiar and new. Things we recognize, and things we’re coming across for the first time. Ideas, people, experiences, sensations, places, and ways of seeing the world you already resonate with. And ones you’ve just encountered and aren’t sure about.

We each look for a desirable blend of familiar and new, whether we think of it in those terms or not. Yours is different than mine, which is different than hers. Familiarity makes us feel at home, safe, and comfortable. New things are often exotic, enticing, and compelling–though sometimes strange, distasteful, or just wrong. Being exposed to things that you never have before stretches you as a person, whether you come to see them as interesting and good or not.

The balance is regularly strained. Too much novelty can lead to overstimulation or feeling overwhelmed. My brain hurts. Slow down. That’s too much, too far, too different. At the same time, too much familiarity can result in boredom, feeling stuck, or narrow-mindedness.

When we think about the music people listen to, most of us don’t want a bunch of things we’ve never heard. We play songs we know and have an emotional connection to. Songs that you can sing along with, dance with, cry with–with a new single or album thrown in from time to time.

A similar thing is true of movies. There seem to be more sequels and remakes all the time–revisiting and remixing familiar story worlds. They take audiences back to something they already have a connection with while adding characters, places, and themes that expand that world a bit. Sequels are all about finding the perfect balance of familiar and new. Some are much more successful than others.

The tension of familiar and new is at the heart of politics. For some people, new policies, new ways of talking about the common good, and new coverages and rights are rejected as radically other—even if they would directly improve their own lives. They make a case to keep things exactly as they are–or even to go back to some supposed golden age (which usually wasn’t super golden for everyone). The political status quo is a comfortable retreat in the face of a to-be-determined future.

The thing is, none of us are meant to stay the same. We’re not meant to live in the past and the comfort of how things have always been. We need a core of familiarity so that we have a sense of self and of home. But we also need to be challenged with new things. It’s what makes you more engaged, more interesting, and more interested.

Even now, much of what is familiar to you was once brand new. You’re more open-minded and growing as a person than you might realize. Have you always thought the way you do? Eat the things you eat? Spend time with the people you spend time with? Take care of yourself the way you do self-care?

Much of what seems new and novel today–and perhaps overwhelming–will tomorrow become familiar. And then you’ll be ready to be challenged and grow some more. New things and ideas and relationships–without breaking your brain or feeling lost and untethered.

What’s familiar and what’s new to you is always changing. Life pushes and pulls you forward. It doesn’t do you or the people around you any good to guard yourself with familiarity. Know what’s home and what makes you, you–and get out of your comfort zone once in a while.

Making Relationships Last

Around Valentine’s Day last year, I wrote about the need to go beyond showing love on just a couple big days with big gestures if you want to be truly romantic. A thoughtful gift or a meal shared at a trendy restaurant on February 14th can be a wonderful thing. But there are a lot of hours and days through the rest of the year when there isn’t a holiday to celebrate and you create (or don’t) the love in the air. Turning romantic sparks into long-burning flames is what makes a relationship a lasting one.

OK, great. Sparks into flames. What are some ways you can do that? As someone who has been married for 7 years–and together for 8 years prior to that–I’ve learned a thing or two about keeping a relationship strong, fun, and new. Not perfect (you can ask my wife about the boneheaded things I’ve done). But lasting and growing.

Be really, really good at talking and listening to each other. It’s nearly impossible to over-communicate and be too good of a listener. Work toward being able to talk openly about everything. Yup, even that. (What did you just think of? Have you talked about it?)

Be really good at talking about things that are going well, and things that aren’t. Every couple argues. You’re going to have competing goals and desires, misunderstandings, and silly skirmishes about things like figuring out what to eat (You pick! No you pick!). You have to learn how to argue well. How to disagree honestly and patiently. How to maintain your own dignity and point of view, while doing everything you can to respect and understand theirs. Figure out what the healthy, mutually beneficial resolution is, and how you can get there together. Arguing well is about finding your way back together when you got miles apart. Not who has the best one-liners and Exhibits entered into the court to prove a point.

The rest of the time–when you’re not arguing (which is hopefully most of the time)–you have to be forthcoming about how you feel, what you plan to do today, how you can get errands and chores done together, and everything else that’s happening in your lives. Keep the conversation going back and forth all the time. If you frequently find yourselves on the couch or in bed quietly immersed in each of your phones, you’ve got some work to do.

Don’t let things become predictable and routine. You shouldn’t be exactly the same person today as you were to your mate yesterday. Learn and grow. And encourage your significant other to learn and grow, too. Do things that enable you to learn and grow together. Classes, vacations, documentaries, hanging out with new people, and other things that will cause you to stretch what you think and what you do. Things should never stay the same between the two of you for very long. You both should know and feel that the relationship is going somewhere. That you’re growing in the ways you want to individually, and growing closer together.

Do surprising little things each day to show your mate how important they are and how much you care about them. Notes and doodles, an inexpensive gift on a random afternoon, home-cooked meals, massages and other loving touch. Sometimes small, unexpected things can change the course of a whole day and how good you feel about each other.

Make sure you have shared values. Sometimes opposites attract. They balance each other out in just the right ways. But if you have completely antithetical outlooks on life and core values, you’re very likely going to arrive at an impasse and part ways eventually. Incompatible religious or political beliefs. Whether or not to have kids or how to raise them. A generally hopeful and optimistic perspective versus a mostly cynical and nihilistic one. Some values and beliefs can change over time or be accommodated. Others are deal-breakers. You and your mate need to know that what matters to each of you most is at least complementary–if not very similar.

Don’t keep score. It doesn’t really matter how much or how little your significant other has done for you today or this week. If you truly love them, you should be more concerned about their well-being than your own. If they truly love you, they should be more concerned about your well-being than their own. You may do all the chores this week. They might surprise you by doing all the chores next week (because they know things shouldn’t be predictable and routine 😉 ).

Your relationship is probably not going to last if you’re doing exactly enough to keep things 50-50. They did ten points worth of good relationship stuff, so I guess I’ll do ten points worth of relationship stuff. It’s definitely not going to last if you’re angling for 40-60 or even less. It’s not a relationship if only one person is doing the majority of it.

True, lasting relationships become a virtuous cycle of enjoyment and fulfillment when you trust that being selfless with each other will meet each of your needs and desires. You give them your honesty, attention, time, patience, creativity, benefit of the doubt, generosity, faithfulness, and the rest of you, and trust that they’ll give you the same.

If you can talk and listen well; learn, grow, and surprise a little everyday; make sure you share what matters most; and don’t keep score; your relationship will burn with more and more heat. And you’ll know that your future together will be even brighter.

Keeping the World New

Have you ever felt bored and cramped by routine? Wake up, work, waste time on your phone, do chores, go out, wake up and do it again? Going through the motions feels repetitive and stale. Even food, one of the greatest of all human pleasures, can become the same old same old–familiar fuel to shove down instead of a hedonistic respite of self-care.

When we get stuck in the routine of everyday life, the world begins to feel small, all figured out, and uninspiring. I’ve had weeks where I did essentially the same activities morning to night, spending all my time either at work or at home (which are only a short distance apart). I felt like I was about to go crazy. Have you ever felt like that? What did you do to break free?

For me, I’ve come to value more and more the need to be adventurous and travel. The routine inevitably does get boring and cramped. Choosing to learn new things and explores new places keeps the world new.

This can be as easy as picking up a book or watching a documentary. People have long freed themselves from smallness and sameness through the escapism of books and film. Or, perhaps, find a neighborhood, theater, hiking trail, coffee shop, volunteer center, or other local place that you haven’t checked out yet. You can widen your world by experiencing more of your own community.

And you can definitely widen the horizon of your sense of the world by traveling even farther. Are there places you can take a day trip to or camp at a couple hours away? How about bigger cities that you’ve yet to experience? When your hometown starts to feel like the beginning and end of the whole world because that’s all you’ve seen for weeks on end, you have to physically extend your felt boundary of the world by going beyond your city limits. Travel, perhaps more than anything else, keeps the world new by exposing you to other communities and ways of life that you’re not otherwise being exposed to. Different plants, landscapes, weather, buildings, fashion, art, language, transportation, and food.

And, curiously, when you come back home, your hometown may feel new itself. It has a fresh context thanks to you broadening your horizon of experience. There’s an old saying that familiarity breeds unfamiliarity. Have you ever returned from a vacation and felt like home looked and smelled a little different? What is your home or apartment’s after-vacation smell?  (Hopefully something other than the trash you forgot to take out before you left). What does the view of the sunset look like when you get back?

After vacation, did friends, family, and acquaintances seem a bit different–a little more complex, fascinating, and enjoyable to be around? Or, inversely, did some people seem palpably toxic and in need of being avoided to a degree? Is that primarily because other people changed, or because you did?

The world and all of us in it are a lot more diverse, interesting, and enlightening than we’re aware of most of the time. It’s just that as we get caught up in the bubble of the routine the world in our experience of it starts to get smaller and smaller, and we get sucked into a pattern that oversimplifies and bores. That’s not what life’s supposed to be about.

It can be difficult to avoid the bubble, and perhaps even natural to get encapsulated in it in a culture that is so purposefully routinized. Most Americans, even if they earn vacation time at work, do not take it. We organize time in an endlessly repeating loop of five work or school days (Monday-Friday) and two rest days (Saturday-Sunday). Monday is the deflated, is the weekend seriously already over? day. Wednesday is the wait, it’s only the middle of the week? day. Friday is the woo-hoo, time to go wild and forget about this shit day. Do you know that Friday feeling? What if you could keep that kind of Friday feeling more of the time?

I really think we can by aspiring to be more adventurous at home and abroad. Does that sound a little cheesy? I suppose. But try scheduling some vacations–day trips or weeks away–to break up the endless Monday through Sunday loop. Try breaking up the daily routine by picking up a book, watching a documentary, or grabbing lunch at a new spot instead of filling the day by checking social media every couple minutes and getting the same takeout meal you had a couple days ago. See if it changes the way that you feel and perceive things. I think there’s a good chance it will.

The world is too interesting for same old same old. Be adventurous. Travel near and far. Keep the world new.