Humans are attracted to familiarity and recognizable patterns. We like music with tunes: melodies have patterns. Routines and habits are patterns we don’t have to think about, and having them spares us from making millions of minute choices in a day. Rituals are patterns to which we pay deep, contemplative attention. Habit: tea at my desk while I grade papers. Ritual: a Japanese tea ceremony.
Novelty is nether habit nor ritual, and it can feel incredibly uncomfortable even when it’s trivial. I read an interview in a medical journal with a physician who included nutrition in his treatments. He said—using hyperbole, I hope—that people would rather change their religion than what they eat for breakfast.
I like to ask my college health classes, “How many of you think tofu tastes bad?”
Ten or twelve hands out of twenty-five usually go up.
“How many of you have tasted tofu?”
About half the hands go down. A few others go up. In other words, some have tried it and know they don’t like it. Some people have tried it and found it enjoyable. Others have decided in advance that it’s going to taste bad without ever trying it. On a zero-to-ten scale of risky behaviors, trying a new food is a one or a two. Nothing terrible happens if you don’t like it, and you might find that it’s delicious.
In my freshman seminar, I encounter a few students who resist unfamiliar books. “It’s too long—I don’t like long books.” “I never heard of the author.” “I don’t read non-fiction.” “I’ve never read any kind of philosophy.” Behind this resistance is often the dread of being bored. Some take the risk and read deeply and engage with the book whether or not they entirely like it. Others guarantee boredom by skimming, getting the result they dreaded in the first place.
My book club makes me venture beyond books I would choose for myself, and through them I’ve expanded my reading horizons. How big a risk is it, after all, to read a book I might not like, or to read outside my habitual patterns? If I truly dislike a book, I give myself permission to stop reading after forty or fifty pages, but that’s a decision I’ve only made once with a book club selection.
Over the years the club has chosen books some books we all loved, many we disagreed on, and a few we unanimously didn’t like. The nonfiction book Winged Obsession, about a collector and seller of illegal and endangered butterflies, sounded great in reviews and in blurbs from established authors, but every single one of us thought it was poorly written in spite of the solid research. (It was still worth reading. I learned a great deal about butterflies and about law enforcement in Fish and Wildlife.) The humorous indie novel The Scottish Movie delighted us all with its quirky insider’s look at the movie industry. The book isn’t famous nor is it blurbed by the famous, but it was fun. It’s the only indie book we’ve read as a club and I remember how amazed the other members were when they saw the price. An e-book for $2.99? I read a lot of indie books, but they’re used to paying $7.99 or more. At that price, an unfamiliar author wasn’t much of a risk for them.
Expensive risks are the hardest. The decision to move. The decision to open a business. To travel to a new place. Some of my yoga teacher friends have been to India. One of them had a blissful experience, staying in an ashram where tiny tame deer came to the patio. The other got some kind of fungal infection and spent the whole trip sick—and yet, she didn’t regret the journey. Its lessons were profound.
Some of the risks people take on a daily basis are so comfortable they feel safe. The phone is familiar, and so is the car. I remember riding with a friend who took both hands off the wheel while driving on a curving road—one hand to shift gears and one hand on his phone. When I pointed out what he’d done, he acknowledged that he hadn’t even noticed. That’s what’s risky: not noticing. While we need some routines and habits, going through life without paying attention is dangerous. We risk our lives with distracted driving, risk boredom by skimming the surface of books or experiences, or risk missing a new experience altogether by not even realizing we could have it.
My last book club gathering included an off-topic discussion of the various unexpected new things members’ aging parents were doing. Making maple syrup. Taking water aerobics. Learning to paint. I have a seventy-nine-year-old man in my Gentle Yoga class who is learning this skill for the first time. Everyday novelties can open doors and break old patterns.
A few years ago I read a study done by a professor at Northern Arizona University on inducing happiness. His experiment involved having people do random acts of kindness, take on small achievable new goals and reach them, and make minor variations in their routines. Compared to a control group, the people who made these little changes became measurably happier.
Taking minor risks like trying new books, activities or foods can add up. When I try something new and different, not only do I feel the satisfaction of achievement but the quality of my attention changes. With awareness, even the familiar can become new and different.
The Scottish Movie