Monday, June 5, 2017

Familiarity Breeds, well, Contentment

Patrick Shannon, a bespectacled, timid school-teacher, was convicted of the second-degree murder of his mother-in-law in 1969. He served twenty-eight years of a life sentence in a prison in upper New York State, and was released in March, 1997.
By then he was sixty-seven, with neither relations nor friends. Suddenly, though free to go where he pleased and to do as he liked, Patrick was in an unfamiliar city surrounded by strange faces, with no one to talk to, and no looks of recognition from passers-by. After nearly thirty years under one roof, he was reacquainted with wind, rain and snow, on streets where the traffic was denser and more snarled than he’d ever seen before.
Four days later, he hanged himself in his tiny rented room in Buffalo. A note he left behind told the coroner that he found life in the world outside jail “solitary and soulless, and changed beyond recognition.”
I wonder whether this tragic figure knew that if he’d found even a menial job, made a few new friends and taken one or two easy steps to integrate himself into the community, such as joining a church, a reading group, or even a chess club, he might still be alive and contented, and looking forward to celebrating the New Year, a new century and another millennium in a warm room with friends.
Patrick’s suicide may have been caused by a bout of depression, but it’s very likely that trigger was the absence of familiarity. Whatever his life was like in prison, he had become accustomed to it. He was the jail’s librarian for the fifteen years before his sentence was reduced for good behavior. He made many friends, sang in the choir and had become an unofficial counselor and father-figure to more than one generation of inmates. Even the prison’s daily routines, the plain but regular meals, the walks in the exercise yard, and every year the prison’s Spartan but still humane celebration of Thanksgiving and Christmas, were familiar and comfortable.
So what’s all this about?  It’s about the fact that, whoever we are, whether we live in relative luxury in Connecticut, or in a convent or a barracks, the shanty towns of Calcutta or Rio de Janiero, or a cardboard box under Grand Central station -- and sometimes even a jail -- after a few months or maybe a year we become comfortable with those surroundings, the routines and the people we know. It’s simply because we are accustomed to them.
There’s ample documentary evidence of this. After the slums of the East End of London had been devastated in World War II, the new Labor government rebuilt thousands of new homes, with far more living space, and improved heating and plumbing, yet huge numbers of cockney Londoners were vociferously unhappy in their new, state-of-the-art homes, and it was a long time before many of them acknowledged that their lives were better.
This ‘familiarity thing’ has been my experience, too. Once my chairman sent me from London to Malaysia, to run the Kuala Lumpur office until he could find a replacement general manager there. I had only four days to get my shots, do some tropical shopping, pack and fly out. At first this assignment in an office only seven degrees north of the equator, where the staff spoke Cantonese, Bahasa and Tamil at home, and where only one member considered English his first language, was as different and unfamiliar as anywhere you could think of in the world. It was steamy, with temperatures of ninety degrees and eighty per cent humidity and the food was, to say the least, exotic. But when the time came to pack up and return to London, I was reluctant to go. I could have stayed there and made the place my home, and the same happened after much longer stints in Australia and the island of Cyprus.
My son, Graham, too, when in his thirties and married with two young boys, found the same thing when he was transferred to Hungary after several years in Dubai where, incredibly, he and his wife had a thoroughly contented life after the inevitable familiarization period. When he first took up his assignment in Budapest, Graham and his wife found the place sprawling, drab and run-down, the language impenetrable, and the people unusually alien. A year later they were experiencing the comfort that only familiarity can bring. By then the boys were happy at the Little Mozart School, and the parents had made friends, become opera enthusiasts, and were beginning to appreciate the city’s easy access to such places as Prague and Vienna. And then, Graham’s firm decided to close down its plants in central and eastern Europe, and he and his family returned to London.
So what can we learn from this?  The sum of it is that we like what we know. Nobody does the Thanksgiving turkey like Mom did. It’s the same with the software you use on your computer; what you like for breakfast; TV shows; the kind of books you enjoy most, and the tooth paste you use. You’re used to them, that’s all.
It’s even so of spouses and lovers. Why did Professor Higgins miss Liza Doolittle when she ran away? Quite simply, he’d grown accustomed to her face.