On Getting Used to It
John von Neumann apparently said that “In mathematics you don’t understand things. You just get used to them.” This apercu applies to much more than mathematics: there are many things we may not understand or like but often we just get used to them. And this is a good thing overall.
Human beings have a remarkable capacity to habituate. You’re doing it without even trying. Here are some things we get used to without any effort:
- You are as tall as you are and no taller.
- Your feet are as big as they are and no bigger.
- You are the sex you are, not the other one.
Most of us don’t spend much time thinking about the alternatives, though there are ways to get there (gender reassignment surgery, “lifting” shoes, and other technologies I’m sure). Certain things which you and I are quite used to now would be strange if not highly annoying if suddenly added to our experience. Imagine that
- Having had a hair-free body, you woke up one day to find you had hair in strange places: your head, your crotch, under your arms, and on your shins.
- Having had nothing hanging between your legs, suddenly you grew testicles. “What are these things?”
- Having never had toes, these twisted sometimes stinking appendages sprout from the ends of your feet. “What the fuck?”
Yet, we don’t think twice about any of this, and we don’t cry over the following facts:
- We can’t fly without supporting machinery.
- We can’t run a 100 yard dash in 2 seconds.
- We can’t hold our breath underwater for 30 minutes.
I would bet you don’t spend much time worrying about these things—these “deficiencies.”
You could call this kind of habituation “acceptance,” but when I hear that phrase, it implies to me that there is some effort involved. I hear the voice of my father: “You’re just gonna have to accept that” such-and such. This has always made “acceptance” sound like action, and so effortful. But that’s not the case much of the time. It just happens. In fact, it may be the default setting on our brains. Think of increasing temperature in a room: it can change quite a bit but as long as the change is continuous, we don’t much notice it.
Now we get to the harder ones:
- You are no more significant than a lobster, hamster, or slug.
- You have a finite lifespan that is getting shorter every moment.
- Many people you know and love right now will die before you.
These are a little less easy to take. At first. But you get used to them. How much energy do we waste fighting against these data? Ideally, we would have the ability to distract ourselves from that which is unlikely to change and focus on that which is likely to change.
Oh. Wait. We do have that ability. Cool!
There’s an episode of The Simpsons in which Flanders is committed to a psychiatric hospital. The orderlies are about to take him away. The doctor gives him a choice: “You can either go quietly or go kicking and screaming.” In other words, you’re gonna go one way or the other. “Kicking and screaming,” Flanders says. Me, I prefer not to waste that energy.