It is a shame how familiar we become with so much of our lives. It would seem that we would find comfort in the familiar…that is not the case. We completely check out and become numb to what is happening around us. We can’t see the people or places around us that have become too familiar, we see it all through a veil of our past observations, images and experiences. With the MOST familiar people and places in our lives it can do the most damage. We can be completely missing what is right in front of us…the very thing we love the most, we sometimes give our attention to the least. Learning about this concept from John O’Donohue in Anam Cara, A Book of Celtic Wisdom was a gift in my life. The gift of seeing the unfamiliar in the most familiar things can wake us up to life. Life takes on a whole new energy when you can really do this. I have had experiences where I felt as if I snapped into attention and really saw my child’s face for the first time in too long. Children’s ability to notice this right away is really something to behold. I cherish those moments when I was really looking at them with unfamiliar eyes. I have also been thrilled to look at my husband and see him as if we were just getting to know each other; it’s so fun to experience the excitement of the early dating days…it just takes a little shift in attention. It takes practice to dwell in this for any length of time, but it is so worth trying to improve at it…life changing when we can do it.
Seeing the unfamiliar in the most familiar things doesn’t mean trying something new to wake you up. It is quite the opposite. It means really watching where you put your attention and what conditioned responses are running in your head. It takes watching your thoughts and not identifying with them. It takes letting those thoughts pass by so that you can create new and fresh ones that are found in the unfamiliar or the fresh moment. The truth is that no one is ever exactly the same as the last time you met them. I know for sure I am not. Sometimes I could just cringe at running into someone I knew well ten years or so ago…I think, oh my gosh they know me from two lifetimes ago… Even when we see people once a week, they are never the exact same person they were the last time you saw them. Allow this freshness to be there and try to see them fresh in the moment. With our MOST familiar people and places it takes the most heightened focus, but what it can do for those relationships and experiences is miraculous. Seeing only the familiar takes all the excitement out of life. Dare to see those closest and most familiar to you in new and unfamiliar ways.
I realized with my own children recently that I am the MOST familiar thing in their lives. I am the thing they have been the most familiar with for the entirety of their lives. I used to wonder why they would say and do things to me that they would never dream of doing to someone else. I struggled with why they save their exquisite manners and politeness for everyone else. It finally dawned on me that I am the MOST familiar thing to them and they are also the MOST familiar thing to me. We could spend our entire day responding to our ideas and images of each other rather than actually seeing and experiencing each other fresh in the unfamiliar. I want to really stop and listen to them and see the new expressions that cross their faces and the new things they are excited about. Just because I am so very familiar with them and so involved in everything they do doesn’t mean I am really seeing the unfamiliar and allowing myself to look at them with fresh eyes to spot new changes and truly hear what is important to them. It is something I have to practice, especially if I want them to do that for me. It is a terrible feeling as a mom to feel like you repeat yourself a million times and no one is listening. Argh. I think I have stumbled into a great truth. If I want them to look at me with fresh eyes and see me, then I must do that for them. This is true for the MOST familiar people and places as well as everyone and everything else too.
Wishing you the profound joy and fresh aliveness that comes with experiencing the unfamiliar in the MOST familiar things.
Below is one of my favorite passages from Anam Cara, A Book of Celtic Wisdom, by John O’Donohue. What a gift!
Behind the facade of our normal lives eternal destiny is shaping our days and our ways. The awakening of the human spirit is a homecoming. Yet ironically our sense of familiarity often militates against our homecoming. When we are familiar with something, we lose the energy, edge, and excitement of it. Hegel said, “Das Bekannte uberhaupt ist darum, weil es bekannt ist, nicht erkannt”– that is, “Generally, the familiar, precisely because it is familiar, is not known.” This is a powerful sentence. Behind the facade of the familiar, strange things await us. This is true of our homes, the place where we live, and, indeed, of those with whom we live. Friendships and relationships suffer immense numbing through the mechanism of familiarization. We reduce the wildness and mystery of person and landscape to the external, familiar image. Yet the familiar is merely a facade. Familiarity enables us to tame, control, and ultimately forget the mystery. We make our peace with the surface as image and we stay away from the Otherness and fecund turbulence of the unknown that it masks. Familiarity is one of the most subtle and pervasive forms of human alienation.