Force of Habit
I heard an AMAZING STORY on All Things Considered today. A neuroscientist, Robert Sapolsky, determined that there is a point when many people lose their sense of adventure. The window of adventurous living slams shut around the age of twenty-one for musical experimentation, thirty-nine for gastronomic experimentation, and twenty-three for tongue piercings. This is for most people. It is a side effect of doing your job well and achieving a position of eminence. Some people do tend to remain open all their lives, but they tend to be less successful in their careers. The report went on to explain how this period of adventure and its end can be observed in mice and baboons as well.
It seems that you are damned if you are stuck in a rut (for who wants to be stuck in a rut?) or damned if you are not (oh, of course YOU are adventurous, you are a failure!) So I found myself saying stuff like "I wouldn't have gotten my tongue pierced at twenty, my obsession with Modern Primitives and body modification notwithstanding" and "But I LOVE Franz Ferdinand and Nightmare of You" and even "Bring me an armadillo, I'll eat it with fava beans and a nice Chianti!" Because no one would ever suggest I have been successful in terms of my career objectives ("how's that novel you're working on, hmm?") But then the fog clears and I can admit that, yes, I am totally set in my ways. When I was sixteen, I bought a record every single day, oftentimes by an artist with whom I was only barely familiar and, when I was eighteen, I got a tattoo I don't even like anymore. Now I rarely wear the ring in my nose, all the new bands I like are referencing the bands I liked twenty years ago, and, on any given day, most of my calories come from soy milk lattes and granola bars.
The thing about being an intelligent creature is that you are able to perceive your environment around you as being something over which you have a certain amount of control. It makes sense that during adolescence, a period wherein one's desire for control is growing and constantly being thwarted, one would be trying anything and everything that comes one's way. Your experiences are limited, so how can you decide you will like something if you don't try it? But then you grow up and you construct the world around you to conform to the shape of your wants and needs. You have past experiences to draw from to aid your decision making and you know what you know, so why take a chance on disappointment when you can go with a sure thing?
But change and adventure can find you when you least expect it. Isn't it a bit limiting to reduce our definition of adventure to the sounds that we choose to go in our ears, the foods we choose to put in our mouths, and the holes we choose to put in our membranes?
Perhaps coincidentally, both my brother, Jeff, and I are standing on a cusp, we are both looking at the future and determining what to do with our lives, we are both embarking on adventures.
In Jeff's case, the adventure is more concrete as he is talking about quitting his job and going to India for five months. Actually, he has pretty much decided that this is what he will do and any suggestions that this may be a bad decision are met with scorn, derision, anger, a series of arguments which cannot be refuted, and laughter (it depends on the circumstances). I think it's a terrible idea. Not because I am incredibly jealous that he does not have the responsibilities which would make it impossible for him to go (I am, by the way), but because, I fear he has developed a need for constant change. It seems like every time he grows dissatisfied with his career situation, he leaves the country for an extended period of time. Isn't this need to forever be pulling up roots (or a refusal to really lay down roots) a habit? Might not a desire to forever seek out change and new experiences be a rut of a different sort? He says he wants to have a wife and kids and I worry that he is developing a pattern which will ultimately prevent him from having the life he claims to want, for isn't routine a significant portion of family life? He is frustrated that he can't meet anyone, but he gives off the "I am not sticking around, I have big plans and dreams that will require me to leave this city in the near future, I am a fling at the most, not boyfriend material" vibes to any girl he happens to meet. Then again how lucky is he that he can afford to just leave his life for a period of time without concern that he will starve to death and/or commit irrevocable harm to his future prospects and wouldn't he be a fool not to take advantage of his situation? How much damage can a five month break do to his career anyway? There are always girls willing to marry a tall, dark, well-educated man when he decides to set aside his wanderlust, regardless of his age, right? My concern for him is probably a result of my own fears with regard to change and my aforementioned jealousy.
In our case, the adventure is far more mundane. Fred and I decided, within the past month, to move. In about two weeks, we will be leaving our home of nine years. Intellectually, I can see all the reasons why this is a good decision (among the many reasons: the fabulous park two blocks from the house, the garage and back deck and that it is a house to which we will be moving, so I won't have to climb three flights of stairs before I enter my front door, Julian will have his own bedroom as opposed to a sectioned off area of a larger space and I will be able to watch television at night without concern that I am disrupting his sleep). However, emotionally, I am focusing on all that we will lose when we leave this place (among the many: the 9' x 9' windows and our view of the sky and the buildings, the energy of living in one gigantic space and the connection with one another which this gives us, the cache of living in a really cool loft in a converted church). It perhaps goes without saying that I am also dreading the hassle of packing and moving. But then I look at the situation and think how lucky I am and how utterly selfish it is of me to even complain--I mean, people are starving to death in Africa and I am worried about losing street cred? Next, I'll be whining that the granite in the kitchen is the wrong color (yeah, it is, but I am telling myself it will grow on me, really, because I know it is such a spoiled, bourgeois thing to even think about). So while I am beating myself up for not appreciating my good fortune to have been born into the circumstances in which I was and for the things to have turned out the way in which they have, I also realize that all this anxiety on my part is a result of my being in a rut. If I really want to prove how open my mind is, I have to jump off this cliff.
Then again, it is entirely possible that none of the above will come to pass. Jeff may choose to stay in LA and things may fall through and we may be in our loft for a few more years. Maybe the only adventures waiting for us in the near future will be found trolling MySpace for new music and ordering the various alternatives to foie gras which the restaurants will be forced to create. Because maintaining one's sense of adventure is really important; to quote the last line of the NPR story, "An open mind is a prerequisite for an open heart."