Lessons in familiarity

Three things that can forever enrich our lives, even far beyond our comfort zone.

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Cover: JG O'Donoghue

In the Lord of the Rings, Gandalf once said to Frodo, ‘Even the very wise cannot see all ends’. It is one of the truest things said about life. The beginning of The Fellowship of the Ring has proven to me to be a great sage for change and for new journeys. In it, a bunch of unassuming hobbits who have lived all their lives in their cozy shire houses, venture out into the unknown, relying on little more than the faith in themselves, their openness to new experiences and their ability to keep learning. Such dilution of the initial pages of this book is undeserved, but if you seek a more jolly version of this idea, the same book has a brief poem at one point:

The Road goes ever on and on
Down from the door where it began.
Now far ahead the Road has gone,
And I must follow, if I can,
Pursuing it with eager feet,
Until it joins some larger way
Where many paths and errands meet.
And whither then? I cannot say.

There are five pillars that I set up to help myself in my move. And it would be an understatement to say I could not have done this all by myself. Every pillar here held me up.

Leaving the familiar behind

The primary challenge to many starting out on a new journey arises from their having to leave the familiar behind. Our brain, in its myriad eccentricities, tries to convince us that this can only be a bad thing. Perhaps it is our heart that does that. Nevertheless, this is untrue. In hindsight—which is ever so often the greater teacher—change is a wonderful thing and change does not always mean permanent detachment from familiarity.

In my brief but eye-opening experience of leaving the place I called home for the first time in over two decades, two things have become clear to me: one, that nothing replaces home, and that is perfectly alright; and two, that we can both draw strength from home and carry a piece of home with us wherever we go.

Memories of familiar places, routine spots I would drive past never thinking twice about, my favourite restaurants, the people and shops and theatres and cinema halls and concert halls and grocers and roads and boulevards and vistas and views I would smile as I talked to, nodded at or commuted past, or even the fields where I played football every morning with a bunch of strangers who quickly grew to be my friends, our friendship tied solely by the bond that football brought us—all these and more are now farther from reach than I would like, yet closer to my heart and memory than ever before.

As the party of hobbits leaves the shire to venture into lands unknown on adventures of which one only dreams, it is from their homes that they draw their strength. The familiar is never gone. The farther we move, the more we come to realise that all that has ever been familiar to us has always been within us.

Your identity never leaves you

The second pillar that supports us is our identity. We all have one even if we do not know it well enough. (But the better we know it, the better life gets.) If there is only one thing you should know about your identity, it is this: never tie your identity to anything or anyone. Your passion is your passion, not your identity; your job is your job, not your identity; your relationships are your relationships, not your identity.

What is your identity is just as easily answered: your identity is how you respond to something and what you believe in; it is your principles and your philosophies, and it is your openness and curiosity that lets you constantly remain self-aware of them and mould them as you go through life the recipient of new information and perspectives.

In the Lord of the Rings—and I say this grossly—every characters goes through a life-changing situation and everyone reacts differently, is affected differently and copes differently. Everyone grows and evolves, but their identities they carry with them even if they evolve as the persons themselves do, and are clearly—for lack of a better word—identifiable from start to finish. Many fear losing their identity when switching jobs or moving cities. But, like the familiar, identity too is something within us that we neither leave behind nor expressly carry. It simply is wherever we are.

Your tribe is your strength

Humans never evolved beyond their idea of a tribe. We have always closely associated ourselves with our people. And it is from them that we draw our strength. Knowing that we have our family and friends, that we can reach out to them, that we can keep in touch with them rather easily in our modern world—in earnest that is, not through public social media posts—are all examples of places from which we can draw our strength.

Personally, I could not have ever moved without the complete, often humbling, support of my family. Nor could I have got the strength as easily as I did to live away from home in a new environment. It is not so much anybody’s constant presence that helps as it is simply knowing that they are there for us, rooting for us, and well within our reach one way or another.

In the Lord of the Rings, every individual in the fellowship supports everyone else and is at some point or other, directly or indirectly, the source of another’s mental or physical strength.

Humans are truly a social animal. This does not mean extroversion, simply that from our ‘tribe’ we draw our strength, as everyone in our tribe draws theirs too.

Your hobbies made you who you are

I once rejected admission into a school because I was told—explicitly—that I would have to leave behind all my ‘side interests’. It is a decision I would stick by to this day and, with little doubt, pretty much forever. If I am anybody today, my hobbies are what made me.

I loved to debate, act in dramas, play and compose music, draw and paint, read, write essays and stories (but I never warmed up to poems), cycle and jog, direct films and make photographs to name a few. Each of these activities have made me who I am today and I am incredibly thankful to each of them although I do some far less often today than I used to before (especially acting or painting).

Our hobbies give us meaning, nurture our need for producing meaning through our work and life, and, generally, they shape our outlook. We often fail to notice these things in the short term, but looking back after a while it becomes nearly impossible to overlook them.

Working in my new job has made the importance of hobbies abundantly clear to me. That one longs for what one can no longer afford is a truth as old as the seas and one that is apparently fundamentally hard to change. I wonder why.

Familiar objects and routines

What a lot of this comes down to is that our life revolves around familiar objects and routines. Things that bring us joy, habits that comfort us and company that brings out the best in us are three things we all need.

These need not be deep themselves. For example, some days lying in bed with a book brings me immense joy while other days—despite reading my book—spending half-an-hour playing on my Xbox is bliss. Still other days it may be sipping tea while watching the rain or even snuggling indoors with golden ambient lights, watching a film you like that Rotten Tomatoes may not.

Like our things may not be deep, our habits need not be noticeable. A morning ritual can make a great start to the day and we all have one—intentionally or otherwise—but even the process of taking off your shoes at the end of the day can be, by association, an act that makes you reminisce of beautiful times. It could even be a simple act that makes time worth reminiscing over a month or six from now. Brewing coffee is no ‘habit’ but it is an act worthy of the title. There are numerous others we barely notice but that nonetheless exist.

Finally, our company—our tribe—makes a difference in our lives in ways we never foresaw or even in ways we fail to notice in the moment. I classify them under things—the living kind. But their impact is all around us, however near or far they may be. They are the final piece of the puzzle that makes our life easier, palatable or rich, depending on whatever was your story that led you to this point. Embrace the little things.

These five pillars make up our lessons in familiarity.