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June 8th, 2021
Put up with something long enough and it becomes normal. Normal is invisible. It’s in the countless details that we miss every single day as we go about daily life. The way sunshine ricochets off a scatter of tree leaves, the gums stuck to the sidewalk edges. The faceless people on the busses and subways, walking past us, all with expressions we fail to pay any attention. For the most part this is an important filtering process. We have to filter out a huge amount of information in order to function. We just don’t have the time, energy or brain space to deal with every little bit of reality. But this normalizing of details that perpetuate creates crucial blind spots that can keep people under the thumb of life that is not nearly as good as it could be.
Sleep deprivation is a very common one. It is possible to get used to consistent nights of three to four hours of sleep, despite how unpleasant this makes the days and how detrimental it is to long term health. We have surprisingly poor memories can quickly forget just how much better daily life is after a solid night’s rest. The problem becomes invisible because it becomes normal, which makes it harder and harder to address because it ceases to have any obvious pertinence.
Obvious problems we fix. When someone calls several times a day, leaving voice messages about something we have failed to attend to, the effect can be nerve-wracking. (As a short aside I once worked with someone who I noticed got a lot of stuff done. When I commented on the fact, she responded by saying “It’s easy, I just call people several times a day and leave them voice messages until they do what I need.” There is nothing quite as effective as being obvious. And to couch this in the terminology of a different field: All press is good press.). Obvious - the word - has an etymology that means simply ‘frequently encountered’. And here, a strange contradiction seems to emerge: Why isn’t everything normal also obvious? We encounter the normal everyday so wouldn’t that make all these invisible things obvious?
The answer hinges on novelty. What is obvious in a pressing way has to be new. Something becomes obvious in the sense that it’s frequently encountered and invisible if it’s encountered with such frequency that it ceases to be novel. This is the process of becoming inured, and it’s how something as miserable as constant sleep deprivation can go from an awful experience that severely discounts your ability to perform during the day to just a new normal that is totally devoid of an idea that life and one’s performance could be better by a significant order of magnitude.
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