I adored him, I ignored him, and now I’m adoring him again.
My oldest son Aidan will be a senior in high school next year. He says college isn’t for him right now, and I couldn’t agree more. He says the day after graduation he’ll be moving to Chicago and starting a career in comedy. It is the only thing he does not joke around about.
So, sixteen months left with him in our home.
I remember when sixteen months measured the time since he’d come to us—back then, I paid attention to his every nuance. Now it measures the time until he will leave us—and I’m starting to pay attention to his every nuance once again. The years in between? Well, the truth is, I got a little distracted during those years. He went from baby-faced to broad-shouldered. Whoosh. Time hurls past unnoticed.
I used to feel guilty about my distractibility. Work priorities that interfered with my family priorities. One life crisis after another, begging for me to look at it rather than the ones I love. A lot of Monday morning regret about weekends during which I’d paid little attention to my people. I would beat myself up for the way my awareness wandered, resolve to do better next time, and then repeat it all over again. These days, though, I don’t beat myself up for it anymore, because now I know what causes it and I know what to do about it.
The problem is habituation.
The dictionary defines habituation as “the reduction of psychological or behavioral response occurring when a specific stimulus occurs repeatedly.” For instance, when you get dressed first thing in the morning, you’re aware of the feeling of fabric on your skin. By the end of the day, you don’t notice it at all. Why? Because your nervous system is programmed to quit processing the data. It decides the sensations aren’t a threat to you as an organism, so it withdraws attention from them and frees up the bandwidth for other data, other sensations, other feelings.
We habituate to almost everything that is repeated over and over again.
Your last sip of coffee in the morning never tastes as flavorful as your first. Your taste buds have habituated. Put your favorite song on repeat all day. By the end of the day, you’ll be enjoying it less, or tuning it out altogether. You’ve habituated to it. Light your favorite candle. Enjoy the scent. Then, eventually, ignore the scent. It’s inevitable: exposure to something safe always results in habituation.
That’s why we habituate to our companions, too.
They’re around more than anyone else. They occur repeatedly in our lives. The things that once tickled us about them become things we don’t even feel anymore. The things that once got our attention have been filed away as safe and unimportant, and our nervous system redirects our attention to other concerns. For instance, Aidan’s big brown eyes. I used to marvel at them. Over the years, though, I’ve habituated to them. My nervous system intervened to save my attention for the fresh concerns being thrown at me all day. Is it any wonder we wind up taking each other for granted. We’re wired to do so.
Fortunately, we are also wired to reverse our habituation.
In my forthcoming book True Companions, I describe a series of studies by Stanford psychologist Laura Carstensen, which explain how to do so: “Carstensen concluded that when ‘horizons are measured in decades,’ which feels like forever to a human being, we desire achievement and self-actualization. However, when the time ahead begins to feel finite and uncertain, our focus shifts to the immediate present, to ordinary pleasures, and to our closest people. We most value our closest companions only when, as Carstensen puts it, ‘life’s fragility is primed.’”*
In other words, our habituation reverses naturally when you let in the awareness that all of life—the whole hard and holy ride, everything you are traveling through and everyone who is traveling with you—is temporary. Impermanent. Transient. Fragile. The dictionary defines “prime” in this way: “to prepare or make ready for a particular purpose or operation.” To prime our fragility, then, is to take something that most of us spend our lives ignoring out of fear and sadness—death, mortality, loss—and to put it to use to resensitize ourselves to our companions. To unhabituate, if you will.
Aidan’s horizon is drawing near.
After years of habituating to his presence in our lives, the nearness of his departure is reminding me of how temporary and transient our time with him is, how fleeting and fragile this life we’re all living is. Carstensen says the inevitable effect of priming our fragility is to become more present to, more grateful for, and more loving toward our truest companions.
These days, I’m noticing his big brown eyes again.
I’m recording every detail and filing it away for memory’s sake.