Why is “now” so normal?

It’s easy to think of anything other than now as intensely weird and fundamentally abnormal.

My life has changed a great deal over the past little while. I’ve learned lots of new things and changed a lot of habbits. For example, one thing I’ve noticed is that I’ve become ever-increasingly dependent on my diary. It tells me where I have to be, what I have to do, and what I have to take with me when I go. I plan things months into the future will full confidence that I will remember to turn up because each morning I when I wake up I inspect my diary to find out what I’m doing today. It’s very reassuring to know that everything I have to remember today is recorded within nine lines, because I’m normally a very forgetful person. It’s amazing how quickly we come to know, love and rely up on the small systems and routines we develop for ourselves, and I don’t regret it one bit. I’m sure there are routines in your life that you feel equally aquainted with.

If I had started keeping a diary when I first came to Oxford then I may have today believed that it was a great advance in my personal development, signifying some deeper change in my attitude to personal organisation. But that is quite impossible and here’s why I’m writing this post: I only began keeping a diary 16 days ago when my phone broke! Today my phone arrived back from the repair centre, shiny and new, and I quickly restored all calendary items to its memory. I stand looking at it today, though, wondering how I will ever adjust to such a foreign method of time organisation.

It is certainly tempting to think of each little change we make to our habbits as representative of some deep attitude shift. If we could actually meet ourselves from “the time before X” we would probably find our past selves more familiar than we expect. The phone example takes this to extremes: 16 days is impossible to forget, but had I made the same change over a longer period, say a couple of years, then I might be fooled into overestimating just how significant this habbit change has been.

Another experience I bring to bear on this phenomenon is one I encountered when I stumbled upon an email I sent a year ago with regard to planning a ski trip. My intuition would have me believe that over the past year my organisational skills have developed from ad-hoc-at-best to thorough-and-systematic. However, this email shows otherwise. Reading my own email gave me a certain degree of pride: I wrote to a group of friends with whom I had casually agreed to organise a ski trip, succinctly covering the important organisational aspects of the trip, delegating tasks, and specifying deadlines where necessary. The plans were laid out clearly and concisely, while remaining friendly and motivating. Though I’ve certainly learned a very great deal over the past year, there is again a tendency to overestimate just how deep my attitude shift has been.

I have previously found the same thing looking over essays I wrote at high school or even primary school. Though I spot many shortcomings I am often pleasantly surprised to find that I was not quite as immature and idiotic as my memory might have me believe (though there certainly was an element there!)

The point of this is not for us to revel in our underappreciated childhood genius but rather to recognise our tendency to bias our concept of normality in the present and exaggerate the abnormality of all other times, past and future, with respect to this. In a future post I will discuss this concept with regard to our perception of the future.


~ by alexflint on November 2, 2009.

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