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The Most Ordinary Things Now Look Special

Is it our nature that causes us to appreciate things only when they’re gone, or is it me?

When I was 8 years old, my parents discovered that I was terrified of dogs. So they went to the pound and brought home a beagle puppy. I didn’t appreciate it — now I experienced terror in my own house, even though the puppy was as terrified of me, as I was of him.

That was the standoff for a month until the beagle broke his leash and ran off. While my parents put up the “missing dog” signs and walked the neighborhoods calling the dog’s name, I sat in my bedroom crying over a broken leash. I never had the chance to love him.

When the dog was recovered, it was a joyous reunion. I had the chance I’d missed the first time to love and appreciate the dog. Love conquered fear easily. It was a happy romp until the novelty wore off, and I either ignored or forgot the dog altogether. In my defense, nearly every kid who wants a dog, who promises to feed it and walk it and clean up after it forever and ever, almost always gets to the same stage as I did.

Actually, social science has answered that question of “is it me or … “ It’s called hedonic adaptation, and it isn’t very hedonistic either. Our minds have evolved to crave novelty, become adapted to it, and move on to seek anew. You get into the only college that matters; you finally purchase that car; hey, you win the lottery! Research shows that lottery winners are no happier than non-winners 18 months later. And ask about that new car when it’s a year old, or see how excited that college student is about the school in sophomore year — depreciation has set in.

In the first weeks of the pandemic and quarantine, I emailed our Bishop, Rev. Marvin Harada, to ask permission to repost something he’d written elsewhere to my blog, and he responded with his permission and marveled on how long we’d been homebound already, adding, “How lucky we were to have our lives before the virus.”

That sentence stuck to me. I copied it onto a piece of paper and carried it in my wallet, although neither I nor my wallet were going anywhere. I wanted to think about those words because they pulled me up short and demanded my attention.

All around me, the here and now was filled with toilet paper shortages, stockpiling water, and saving masks for medical workers. Here and now came with a rush of its own vocabulary to learn and practice: “social distancing”; “self-isolate”; “hand hygiene”; “flatten the curve” — and the ominously unoptimistic, “new normal,” which you might not know what it meant but suspected it was not meant to be an improvement over the old normal.

Rev. Harada’s words threw open a window where, to look back, you saw the most ordinary things — a hug, a kiss, holding hands, an ordinary little temple in Vista with people preparing for festivals, maybe some of them complaining about the festival demands (that might be me), or a less-than-entertaining Dharma message (ahem) — except now it looks so beautiful, so special, shimmering with our lives before the virus.

“How rare and wondrous it is to have been born into human life, and now I live it,” we say to begin the Three Treasures recitation at temple. Did I ever really know how rare and wondrous it is, or did I need a pandemic to understand? How rare and wondrous indeed, then, to have the opportunity of a global pandemic in my lifetime to teach me such an important teaching.

I was still the kid who lost the dog she was afraid of when she had it, and hedonic adaptation is still a real way in which our minds have evolved. People talk about “when this is over,” but I wonder if the new normal might embrace a new appreciation and remembering of our lives as they are now.

It seems I have been given the opportunity to find out.



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