The Odd Early Morning

Friday, November 27, 2009

Routines serve a purpose similar to abstractions: They allow us to focus on what is important and set aside what is not important. Take the abstraction, cat: When I arrive at the vet with my cat and take her out of the cage, it isn't as if the two of us are observing a cat for the first time in total amazement, dumbstruck by how well-suited she is for hunting small animals or gushing about what a cute ball of fur she is. We get down to to the business of me describing what ails her and him thinking about how to help. (Before we go further, the cat's actually fine.)

The fact that Miss Maple is a cat is crucial at every step of the way in the above vignette, from me even deciding to go to the vet to his considering what she needs. Her ability to hunt mice and melt hearts are still there, but we don't focus on them. In some respects, one could just plug any sick cat into the situation, and the cat would fare quite well.

That's how powerful abstractions are -- and how limited. It would be extremely odd of me to respond to my cat's ill health by taking a different ill cat -- and odder still, a healthy one -- to the vet. And it would be weird to drop off Miss Maple and return with a healthy (but different) cat. And yet, I'd bet dollars to dough nuts (or dough nuts to dollars?) that one could find an academic somewhere who would argue in all seriousness that either of the above hypothetical trips to the vet fulfilled its "essential" purpose. In truth, each would be an amazing comedy of errors because the fact that the cat in question is a particular cat, my cat, is no less important. Why would I even bother taking a sick cat anywhere if it did not have some particular appeal to me?

We could go on about the importance of properly forming the concept "cat," too, but that amount of detail is beside my point, which is simply that the power of abstractions lies precisely in their relationship to reality. (This includes forming them correctly.) There is no way to function without them, but one can't go through life playing games with abstractions and only with abstractions. Abstractions have to be checked against reality all the time for epistemological and ethical reasons because we reason in order to live.

And so it is with routines, which is what got me started here. I'm up earlier than usual for some errands this morning, and I caught myself noticing and enjoying lots of things almost as if I had awakened to find myself in a new and exciting world. This is frequently the case when I have to wake up earlier than usual and not follow my normal routine. I'll notice the sunlight casting shadows through the plants in my window sill. I'll go to a cafe and enjoy the smell of the coffee and pastries. One time, I noticed what a beautiful day it was and brought a camera along.

Most of the kinds of things I typically find myself enjoying when I have to step outside my routine are not essential to the purpose that dragged me out of bed in the first place, and often, I am in too much of a hurry to linger over them for long, but they are values and I always enjoy noticing them. But before I plunge in to this busy morning of random beauty, I want to see what I can learn from the fact that it will be such a morning.

Why does this happen and can I make it happen more often?

Routines are skeletons of time, ways to make sure we do what is important out of habit, rather than having to remember them afresh every time. In my case, I am definitely not a "morning person," and having a routine in the morning allows me further to save mental effort for more important things than making coffee or showering. This works very well for me, but at a price: I don't notice lots of the kinds of things that make life worthwhile. On mornings like this, I have to pay more attention to everything than usual, and one incidental reward is that I notice lots of neat things.

It is in this way that a routine resembles an abstraction, and a life composed only of routines would be as ridiculous and tragic as one spent with one's head in a cloud of floating abstractions. With abstractions, one must keep in mind the concretes. That I think I see how to do fairly well. For example, when I think of "cat," I think of Miss Maple or Jerome or a black-and-white cat I had as a kid. But with a routine, the analogy breaks down. It's not quite so easy to see how to go back and forth between a routine and the kind of attention to details I get on mornings like this.

As my first stab: It's not really possible to "plan to be surprised," but one can make a point to avoid the routine entirely from time to time. Obviously, full-blown vacations achieve this purpose. But taking frequent vacations is hardly a feasible option. Perhaps some sort of "mini-vacation" is the way to go. I'm thinking in terms of putting together a list of minor things I'd like to do or places I'd like to see -- Boston is full of those -- and perhaps promising myself to do one of them each month on a morning, since this is when I seem to get the most enjoyment out of doing strange things. It might even be worthwhile -- although I'm not sure and might have to tinker -- not to give myself a whole lot of time to do whatever I do since heightened attention seems to be what I'm going for.

I'll have to think more on this and I do have to run, but it's an interesting idea if I do say so myself.

Enjoy your day, too!

-- CAV


mtnrunner2 said...

Interesting post. I've thought about this exact same issue (for lack of a better phrase: how to experience daily life to the fullest), but don't know if I have any silver bullets to offer.

Like you, for me this involves actively varying times of day or place. Things look different, and you tend to think about them differently than before.

For me a strong component of this experience is an acute, unmediated perception of reality. Meaning: experiencing the moment and your surroundings perceptually, rather than through the automations of established conceptual-level thinking. It's a reality check, as it were. I think when your mind can move freely and without contradiction from the perceptual to highly abstract levels, with emotions in line, you experience living to the fullest.

I agree that vacations serve the purpose not only of enjoyment, but also of a vital change of perspective and a chance to re-think. I wonder how many plans for significant life changes are hatched during vacations? I pursue this in daily life by taking advantage of small opportunities to try something new, be it a shop, a walk, food, music, whatever. It can be something as large as moving to a new city, or as small as choosing a different walk home, or a different coffee mug. Either way, it requires you to be actively aware of your immediate surroundings.

The degree of departure from routine is what requires me to actively perceive/experience the new thing, which at least for me is the change of awareness component.

I also find that physical activity does this; skiing or running for example in my case, or even walking, since it too involves active sensory engagement with your surroundings. The oft mentioned "runner's high" is a secretion of endorphin but is also an active engagement of the mind with reality. That degree of awareness and enjoyment combined is a wonderful experience.


Beth said...

There is a life-affirming sweetness to this post which speaks to me deeply. Thank you.

You may find the following book interesting, and maybe even a little helpful, in your quest:
Stopping: How to Be Still when you Have to Keep Going.

Enjoy the morning.

Gus Van Horn said...


"Like you, for me this involves actively varying times of day or place. Things look different, and you tend to think about them differently than before."

You've got the idea, and your fourth paragraph indirectly suggests some other ways to shake things up once in a while. Perhaps one could write down a whole bunch of medium-to-small sized things like this that could be managed easily and select them at random on the appointed day.


Thanks for the book suggestion. That is an interesting idea and also along the lines of what I'm thinking about.

Thank you both!