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Article ID: 14400

VoxAcct: 164010

Section: words

Age Group: Adult

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The Open Hand

Author: Janice Van Cleve
Posted: February 27th. 2011
Times Viewed: 3,544

Familiarity is comfortable. We are naturally more comfortable in our own town than in a strange city because we are familiar with our own streets, the traffic laws, and how to get around. In the same way we are more comfortable walking in our own neighborhood because we know it and feel that we are a part of it – that we belong there. We often shop the same stores because we are familiar with where to find things and if we chat up the clerks they begin to recognize us. We become “regulars” and that is a comfortable feeling.

We have our familiar routines as well. Everybody has his or her own conviction about the correct way to put the toilet paper on the roller and about the correct way to load the dishwasher – it’s just different for each person. That’s why when I am invited to dinner at another person’s house I have stopped offering to help clean up. Almost every time, my hostess wants to do it her way. I’m the same way at my house after a dinner party. When everybody’s out of there, I change into something comfortable, put on the music, light the incense, and whisk my way around the kitchen in my own comfortable, familiar patterns and I am happy doing it that way.

Just because we prefer the comfort of familiarity doesn’t mean we are in a rut. It simply means that we have long since figured out what works for us and we don’t need to waste any more brain energy on it. Maybe that’s one reason why we like to travel. It makes us exercise our brains again to figure out how to make new places work for us. I know when I am in a foreign country I really enjoy hunting my own supper away from the tour group. I love going into restaurant after restaurant, looking over the menus, checking the wine stock, and even poking my nose into the kitchens when I can get away with it. The staff usually does not take it as an intrusion, but rather they seem to enjoy it as a bit of entertainment on a slow afternoon. By familiarizing myself with a number of restaurants, I make them my own. I take care of a basic need – food – and at the same time I get comfortable in new surroundings. It’s not about avoiding a bad dinner. It’s all about the fun of the exploration and familiarization for its own sake.

Eventually, however, all this familiarity and comfort brings us to a crossroads. Do we become set in our ways or do we keep alive the skills that help us continually to adapt? This question becomes more insistent as we grow older. After all, the older we get, the more stuff we’ve figured out. We no longer have to sweat the small stuff and we’ve come to realize that most of it is small stuff. Our mature minds are free to focus on the great questions of the day, on philosophy, spirituality, the arts – and figuring out where we left our house keys!

On the other hand, the world is constantly changing around us and even our bodies are changing so we sometimes can’t always do the things we used to do. If we stay too set in our ways we may find those ways becoming obsolete. We may find our bodies and our minds less and less able to keep up, let alone adapt. We may find our world narrowing, constricting, and downsizing until our whole life fits into an 8 by 10 bedroom in a rest home.

The alternative is to keep adapting as much as our means and physical capabilities allow us. Somewhere I heard that any habit could be built or broken in 22 consistent repetitions – barring, of course, chemical dependency or other external factors. So why not build and break habits just to exercise our adaptation skills? Why not make changes now and again if only to assert command – choice – over our behaviors rather than let habits become a “necessity” for our comfort and enjoyment? Trying new cooking recipes, reading new books, going vegetarian for a month, taking the bus, meeting new people, subscribing to cultural events, etc. all help to shake up the mix and prevent habits from eroding our adaptability.

Challenges – especially challenges to our root survival instincts – force us to adapt. New places, whether to foreign countries with cultures strange to us, or backpacking in the mountains, quickly and decisively “unset” our ways. Maintaining relationships with partners or friends often force us to adapt to them while at the same time causing us constantly to rethink our boundaries. Becoming involved with organizations forces us to work on priorities of the group that may not agree with our own. Just dealing frequently with lots of other people keeps the edge on one of our most important skills – social adaptation.

Then there is money and the things it can buy. We can become “set in our things” as well as “set in our ways.” Material possessions can become anchors holding us back rather than assets for our future. I heard once that if we cannot let go of something, then we don’t own it – it owns us. This came true for me the first time I wrote my will. I experienced the most profound sense of relief. Number one, it was a great reminder of my mortality and that no matter what, I would inevitably and eventually have to let go of all my possessions anyway. Number two – and something I had not anticipated – I was no longer working for myself. I was working for my estate, which was going to help other people and several nonprofits. Everything I earned after taking care of my own simple needs was going to increase the gift I was giving to others. Maybe it’s my Aquarius Moon and Aquarius Rising but that is a very satisfying feeling.

Clinging to our things requires us, metaphorically at least, to grasp them with a closed fist – and a closed fist cannot receive anything new. It is limited only to what it already holds. Clinging to our set ways can have the same effect. It limits our experiences and can even lead to the disability of fear which prevents us from even trying things we are perfectly capable of doing. Ultimately the same thing can be said for our values and our beliefs. If we cling to one dogma or one –ism we will never see the world through other viewpoints. We will never develop our values and beliefs into more refined, nuanced, and ultimately more useful and effective ones. Dogmas and –isms provide answers when what we really should concentrate on are the questions.

In contrast, the open hand is able to receive. The open eyes are able to see. The open ears are able to hear. The open heart is able to love. The open mind is able to break habits, challenge assumptions, assess values, and change its perception of reality and therefore reality itself. Patterns established from experience can protect the open handed person not by shielding her from possibilities but by suggesting relevant questions to ask to evaluate those possibilities.

Familiarity is comfortable but daring the unknown can also be comfortable. All you have to do is make sure to check the menus and the wine lists!

Copyright: Janice Van Cleve somehow didn’t get the memo. She was much more tight-fisted, close-minded, and set in her ways 30 years ago than she is now at 65. Who knew? Copyright 2011.


Janice Van Cleve

Location: Seattle, Washington

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