I love that quote from the Philarious Jonathan Slavin on Better Off Ted. As with many lines from that show, it’s funny while also being deeply true in a way one doesn’t often find on sitcoms. Which is probably why there were only two seasons.
The drive to Phoenix always makes me think about this human ability to adjust to things.
First there’s the speed limit.
The national speed limit was 55 mph (“Stay alive, drive 55”) until 1995. Clinton repealed it and Arizona went to 75 on the open stretches.
(This begs all kinds of questions. Were we wrong thinking 55 was safer? Was there lobbying by truckers? Did we stop giving a fuck as long as we could get there faster and stand a reasonable chance of surviving?)
Every time I first get on the freeway even 55 seems insane and I think “I’ll just stick to this speed, thanks. Better bored than spread all over the asphalt.” But then I start to get used to it, and before I know it, the speedometer is creeping up. And up. Suddenly I’m having to set the cruise control at 80 so I don’t go 90 because 80 seems so slow.
Then there’s the view:
It’s almost exactly one hundred miles between the two biggest cities in Arizona, and we’re talking a hundred miles of nothing. Just flat, ugly desert of dry scrub, cacti, tumbleweeds, and stunted trees, on which rests faded blacktop with hardly a curve the entire stretch.
At first it’s not so bad, provided it’s been a while since you made the drive, but after about 15 minutes you start wishing there was something to look at other than evil buffelgrass and the occasional dead coyote.
The only break is Picacho Peak, roughly halfway between the cities. Picacho is cool, and it’s made cooler by being the only remotely interesting thing to see for 80 miles, but even it can only hold your interest so long. You get used to it too.
This ability to “get used to” things is a uniquely human quality I both admire and resent. You can stick us in unfamiliar environments, rearrange our social circles, take away our distractions, even change the rules by which we live our lives, and we’ll adapt. Given enough time, we’ll probably reach a point where we accept the situation, and eventually come to find it so commonplace it’s boring.
It enables us to endure depression, withstand torture, slog onward despite hardship, and come out the other side with at least a shred of sanity. It’s how we get through everything from crappy childhoods to world wars.
But we also become accustomed to things we shouldn’t: Beauty. Injustice. Miracles. Hypocrisy. Love. Cruelty.
For me a big part of Zen is learning how not to get used to things. By staying in the present, every moment of life can be experienced as it truly is, not lumped in with memories of the past or expectations for the future. There is nothing to get used to because each moment is unique. This works for enduring difficulty (pain, boredom, hunger) as well as it works for appreciating the beauty in everyday life.
Take the drive to Phoenix.
Rather than dwelling on how boring it is, if I stay in each moment, then each moment is all there is, and even I can survive the boredom of a moment. But the amazing thing is, the more I focus on being present for each moment, the less boring the moments are. I become aware of the temperature, changes in windspeed, the subtle colors of the desert, the shapes of the clouds. I begin to see that the world I live in is constantly shifting, dying, being born. I cease to be separate – from my car, from the road, from the earth, from the sky, from existence.
And being part of everything that is, how could I possibly find it boring?