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Back in 2003, when my daughter was still in kindergarten, we took a week-long vacation to a little place called White Lake, NC. It’s a place where my wife had vacationed often as a child, and I’d been there once or twice, but as a family we hadn’t gotten into the habit of taking summer vacations. This was a new thing, and I wasn’t sure I’d like it: a week away from the comforts of home?
But I needn’t have worried. It didn’t take me long to relax and begin to enjoy the change of scenery. I spent my days taking naps, reading, going for long walks, and having a blast playing in the water with my daughter. We played miniature golf at the nearby Putt-Putt. In the evenings we drove to nearby Elizabethtown for dinner at some of the restaurants there. On our last evening, I walked to the end of the pier and looked out over the quiet lake, thinking back over the week we’d just had. It was a bittersweet moment: tears came to my eyes as I thought about how much fun we’d had and about the impending return to the normal routine.
I’d enjoyed that week so much that the following year I was eager to do it again. And so we did. We went back to White Lake and stayed in the same cabin; I filled my days with the same activities, and we made a point of revisiting our favorite Elizabethtown restaurants. As that second White Lake vacation came to an end, I walked to the end of the pier in a conscious attempt at recreating that emotional moment from a year before. Once again I felt that mix of happiness and sadness. I remember asking myself: why do I get to feel this way only once per year?
It became a tradition: the White Lake vacation. Every year I looked forward to it; every year we did the same activities, in keeping with tradition. It was like checking off items on a checklist. Daily walk: check. Swimming in the afternoon: check. Putt-Putt: check. Favorite restaurants: check. Traditional walk to the end of the pier on the last night in town: check.
As the years went on, I started to feel like something was missing. I wasn’t enjoying the vacations so much anymore. I still remembered how happy I’d been that first time, and I desperately wanted to recapture that feeling, but the more I tried the more elusive it seemed. The activities that we’d always enjoyed so much didn’t seem quite as fun anymore, but I didn’t understand why.
Then one day, as I was on one of my long walks, I realized that I’d fallen into an old trap, one that I had dug for myself. That first White Lake vacation had been so enjoyable in part because it had been a novel experience, a departure from the routine. I’d enjoyed it so much that I’d tried to recreate it over and over, but that doesn’t work. I called it tradition, but all I had done was create a new routine.
This is a battle I have fought with myself for my entire life. I am, to an almost pathological degree, attached to the comfortable and familiar. I develop habits and cling to them because I naturally resist change. Yet, at the same time, I need change. Everybody does: neurological research has shown that personal satisfaction and fulfillment (happiness, for want of a better term) depends on novel experiences.
But I never seem to learn the lesson. When I enjoy a new experience, my natural inclination is to want to do it again and again. The new becomes the familiar, the scary becomes the comfortable, and once again I’ve built myself a set of “traditions” that, eventually, drain the joy from whatever I’m doing.
I don’t know that I’ll ever win this battle because it can be very pleasant to cling to the comfortable and the familiar. But the older I get, the more conscious I am of how short life is, and of how much of mine I cannot account for. Year after year, day after day, walking around in the same footprints, accumulating no new experiences. The time vanishes without a trace. There are entire years of my life about which I remember nothing, not a single novel or remarkable thing I did. Those years were pleasant, but a pleasant life is not necessarily a satisfying one. When I reach the end of mine I’d rather look back on a life full of memorable experiences than a life full of leisure.
In 2010, we went to White Lake for the eighth and last time. Since then we’ve taken family vacations to various places, but nothing has become a new routine. More importantly, though, I realized that I didn’t have to wait for those annual vacations to feel the happiness that comes from new experiences. It doesn’t take much: any departure from the normal routine can make a lasting memory. As hard as it is for me to let go of tradition, I’ve started to see the intrinsic value of novelty. Rather than shying away from unfamiliar experiences, I’m more likely to give them a try, because newness itself might be enough to make it worthwhile.
(I was going to write more, but it’s almost 11:30 AM, and I always go to lunch at 11:30. Tradition, you know.)