What is this thing that happens inside us? We look forward to something with such fervor that we can hardly bear the intensity. And then, sometimes within seconds of reaching the goal, we grow bored and tired of it, even acting as though we’d never wanted it in the first place.
There’s that photograph in the travel book, the one we stare at for hours, imagining what it would be like to be standing in the picture. Then, after enduring the obstacles and frustrations of modern transportation, we’re there. Now we’re gazing upon the same scene – those mountains, that bridge, this landmark. For entire minutes, we have to remind ourselves that we’re no longer home, dreaming of the visit. We’ve removed most of the physical space that had separated us from this place, and we’re really here.
It happened the first time I went to Washington DC and saw the Capitol Building. I arrived on a wet August night. After climbing the stairs from the subway up to street level, I turned around and there it was, off in the distance. The dome, in all its milky majesty, appeared to be illuminated as if by its own private star shining overhead. I was mesmerized. Having seen hundreds of images in books, magazines, and newspapers, as well as in movies and on television, I had to struggle to believe I was looking at the real thing, not through any print or electronic medium, but with my own eyes. The next morning, clutching my tourist map, I had the same reaction to the Lincoln and Jefferson Memorials, the Supreme Court Building, and the White House. By the following day, I had adjusted to being there, and was peering right past those now-familiar sights, searching for something fresh and stimulating. They had blended into the background. The enthusiasm was all but gone.
Where did it go? Where does it ever go? Have you watched an eight-year-old boy unwrapping birthday presents? It’s the identical process, but in a fast-forward loop: anticipation-excitement-acclimation-boredom. Then, if there’s another package to open, the loop begins again with a renewed frenzy. And after the last one, he slides down into a kind of despair, maybe understanding, on a subconscious and adolescent level, that no gift could have matched his yearning to receive it.
I’d like to think that I’ve outgrown that immature mentality, but I haven’t. I’m stunned by how quickly I move through a similar cycle, from eager expectation to wondering what’s next.
It must be related to chemicals. When we’re about to have a new experience, our brains release hormones that make us feel euphoric. If enough time has passed, that same experience – seeing Niagara Falls, for example, or eating pancakes — can make us happy again. But if we try to duplicate the response too soon, it doesn’t work.
This is a common human tendency. We start out with a strong desire for something, but soon become accustomed to it, and the thrill fades. And that’s good. If we didn’t get used to things, we’d spend too much time re-living emotions, over and over. It would be like having no short-term memory. We’d be stuck, forever, in a narrow sliver of the world.
On the other hand, when it comes to relationships, wouldn’t it be nice if we could return to the dreamy, glazed passion of those first days and weeks? Wouldn’t we love to hold onto that dopamine-infused enchantment that carried us through the early months?
I don’t know. It seems like a pleasant thought, but would we ever get anything done? Would we get enough sleep? Would the bills get paid?
To be in a constant state of obsessive enthrallment would likely be as damaging as its extreme opposite – the continual need for novelty and adventure. The ideal situation, I think, is probably somewhere near the middle. If we’re patient and attentive, we can always find something new in what has become commonplace, something we hadn’t before noticed or appreciated.
I must have stumbled upon this very idea hundreds of times in my life. And each time, it strikes me as compelling, intriguing, and attractive. I’m pretty sure that’s because I haven’t yet figured out how to actually do it. My fear is that I’ve been too busy counting gifts.
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By the way, this is exactly why I’ve never gone to the Grand Canyon.