Wednesday, September 5, 2007

Eyes Wide Open

Tomorrow, I say goodbye to summer and begin a new year of graduate school. This time of year is always melancholy for me, but also rather exciting. In keeping with that mood (and my newly busy schedule), here is another of my favorite old posts, Eyes Wide Open:

Psychologists tell us the human brain is wired for novelty. In the flood of information that bombards our senses, we unconsciously sift out what is new or different, focusing on the most pressing aspects of our experience.

We see this with particular poignancy in children. For them, everything is new, and they can scarcely take it in. The flowers hanging in the window, the music from the radio, even someone making dinner or a stupid plastic toy – each holds a kind of magic when they first experience it. Sometimes, my four-month old can entertain herself with nothing more than a mirror and a rattle.

But there is a dark side to this drive for novelty: boredom with the everyday. The brain’s innate curiosity is still so strong in the young that monotony can feel like torture. The spot where she loved to sit last week, makes her scream this week. The toy that made her giggle this morning, goes unnoticed this afternoon. The face she couldn’t stop staring at a moment ago, makes her cry now.

And this doesn’t end in childhood. As we grow, this tendency grows with us, pressing us to the limits of our environment. As kids we explore our neighborhoods and greenbelts. As teens we rebel against the limits of authority. As adults we reach for success, travel the world or seek out new experiences and ideas. All in an endless drive to find “the next thing.”

Sometimes this ends tragically. Even when it doesn’t, we find a constant struggle between the thrill of novelty and the obligations of life. School is exciting in September but drudgery by October, almost miserable by December. The woman who once occupied one’s every thought, is soon taken for granted. The cause that once seemed so important, now feels hollow. The situation hasn’t changed, but you have.

And it all happens so fast! When I started grad school last month, I began commuting a significant distance for the first time in my life. I had intended to illustrate this post with various observations that had fascinated me on the first few drives. But in just a month I’ve already grown so thoroughly familiar with the routine that I can’t even remember what those were, nor why they seemed significant. When the experience was new, it was filled with wonder – the views were grand and the oddities amused me – but in time the scenery grew dull and the quirks became frustrating. It’s a familiar pattern.

For all this, our tendency to seek out novelty remains a great gift. No matter how monotonous life gets, there is always this quiet voice telling us something better is possible. Our deep-seated need for originality drives much of what is best in life. From the adventures of Calvin and Hobbes, to the mysteries of romance, to our quest for scientific advance – our increased attention for novelty not only drives us to improve, it also helps us do so.

Like all our traits, it is up to us whether to use them for good or evil. If we become too enamored with what's new, we become unreliable and incapable of follow-through. If we ignore this need, we become disillusioned and incapable of progress. Virtue lies in the balance.

Either way, there is something deep within us that longs for something more than we have, something better that we can taste but never quite find. Perhaps this was part of what the author of Ecclesiastes meant when he wrote: “God has made all things beautiful, but he has set eternity in the hearts of men” (3:11). Or as C.S. Lewis put it: “Aim for heaven and you get the Earth thrown in, aim for the Earth and you miss both.”

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