One of the characteristics of human life is that what is familiar fades into the background. It has to be this way for us to cope with the world. Familiarity, and the background of understanding that it makes possible, is vital for our survival.
Imagine if this were not the case. What kind of life could we lead if we were constantly surprised by door handles, pencils, shoelaces, how to greet others, lifts, what to wear, watches, speech, furniture?
The complexity of the human worlds that we can construct and move between makes this all the more vital. The world of business, or the world of school, of parenting, of a particular profession – our participation in these require that we develop the kind of background familiarity which enables us to navigate and act without have to learn and relearn every time.
But familiarity, while necessary, also hides so much from us. Perhaps you can see this easily if you go to visit a city that’s unknown to you. Suddenly the details of buildings, architecture, language, dress come into view. That which would be unremarkable at home reveals itself in its beauty or in its capacity to confound or in its stupidity. Simple tasks such as buying a train ticket or navigating by bus across town show how complex they are, and how much skill they require.
All of these were present in your home town, but your very familiarity with everything had them fade from view.
If familiarity helps us to navigate, it also helps to conceal from us what’s there. We stop seeing the wonder and extraordinariness of our environments, tools and practices, just as we stop seeing their limits and costs. We lose sight of the effect of our houses, cars, meeting rooms, money, working hours, conversations, relationship to time, phones, people around us, sleep, and our practices of all kinds. In other words, familiarity is not just a way of coping skilfully with the world, it’s a way of going to sleep to it too.
Sometimes we need to undo all of this if we are going to have a chance to do more than sleepwalk from one situation to the next. We need to look at what’s most ordinary as if visitors from afar, or aliens from another world. We need to consciously and actively see what’s most familiar as if it were really quite strange to us.
And we need to consider exposing ourselves purposefully to the unfamiliar if we are to wake up from our dream and take the responsibility for our lives, work, organisations – and for each other – that is called for.