I manage a kitchen at a homeless shelter that sits on a one-way street in an industrial park. The road is often blocked with delivery trucks, construction rigs, fire engines, or commonly as I saw tonight- an EMT squad. I got into my car to leave, turned around at the sight of the blockage, and headed in the opposite direction to the main road. Due to light traffic, it easy to take for granted that these one-way streets are public. People frequently drive down them in the wrong direction. It is common to do so before becoming familiarized with the layout of the property. Tonight, I had no choice but to exit against the current.
I recalled the first time I ever set foot in the shelter. I went in for an interview, and then I returned to help serve dinner a few nights later. The shelter is newly built and generally well maintained, but the clientele turn general maintenance into an uphill endeavor. I remember the freshly painted but sickly color scheme that all of the walls wore like vomit. I remember the smell of human feces and cheap cigarettes. The smell of chemicals to mask it all. I remember the vastness of the building. Every corridor went into an endless and unknown expanse. Every door was locked, and what hid behind each one was a mystery. After a single night of volunteering I was eventually offered position which I then accepted on a whim.
Day after day I returned to the shelter. A year later the color scheme still looks queazy, but I am able to see through it now. On any given day, I might be greeted with aromas of soiled jeans and sweats. Second hand smoke of the lowest grade cigarettes still lingers through several panes of glass. I recoil, but only briefly. I breath through my mouth until I can make it into one of the locked rooms where the scents cannot linger. I know every room and corridor in the building now. Despite its magnitude, there is little mystery in it anymore. It has all become so familiar.
I have experienced this sensation everywhere I have ever been employed. Familiarity shrinks the expanse that newness gives. Fresh eyes become stale. It is not that there is no mystery left. It is that I have stopped wondering. Is this not the natural response to anyone’s experience of any person, place, or thing- to develop this sense that one’s relationship with anything can somehow be exhausted? I may become bored of anything or anyplace or anyone, but it is not familiarity that causes boredom. It is a lack thereof.
Repetition brings about sensations of familiarity. In the absence of wonder, boredom sets in and makes one disengaged from the reality before them. When sensations die, when awe and curiosity cease, the experience of our subject becomes passive. We stop experiencing things for what they are, because what they are is always deeper than the surface. Boredom passively takes for granted those intricacies buried beneath. Newness always brings with it sensations of wonder that fuel interest and curiosity. As those sensations fade, it is only humility and discipline of the mind that allow us to discover new things. Familiarity transcends into intimacy. That which was familiar and stale is suddenly infused with newness. And so it is with everything.