The balance between routine and novelty: give me roots but don’t clip my wings


My best friend likes to say that life unfolds in chapters. She often reminds me of this at critical junctures in my life. Together, we’ll note how that was an “exploratory phase.” This one? It’s more about settling, grounding, building. It can be a helpful way of making sense of life, offering a gentle framework or MO for daily living, helping quiet some of the distractions or longings for something else I maybe wish I had or perhaps that I did have before. Of course, life never fits perfectly into tidy little boxes, as much as I wish it could sometimes.

There will always be competing desires, and I will often need to work at feeling 100% satisfied with where I’m at. I see it as life’s underlying tension, one I must walk like a tightrope. For me, this tension often revolves around a familiar paradox: the craving for routine and stability while simultaneously yearning for novelty and excitement. The desire to ground down while still being able to fly away at a moment’s notice. If I look at my own life, I have yo-yoed clearly between the two.

Four years ago — as the “Facebook Memories” feature often likes to remind me — I was living a very different reality than I am today. I was in the midst of a world trip; the first leg, traveling around Central Asia and Asia; the second, through Central and South America. I was living that “digital nomad life”, the one that is both easily covetable and easy to roll your eyes at. It was a life I had dreamed of. It was why I chose my career path as a freelance copywriter and why I had moved myself to Europe off a strong urge and a whim eight years ago. And, of course, it was the product of immense privilege and circumstance.

While nothing is ever as perfect as the Instagram photos would lead you to believe, it was, indeed, pretty amazing. It was also an experience that I didn’t truly appreciate until I was on the other side, as the story usually goes. Today, I’m on that other side and I can see it for all its worth. I cherish those experiences, the moments taking in new landscapes on the taxi drive from the airport into the city, immersing myself in new cultures, making fast friends that now extend around the world. Fast forward to today, and I am living a significantly more grounded reality, and have been for the last three years.

The globetrotting initially came to a halt because I broke up with my ex, who also happened to be my travel partner and lead adventure instigator. With him no longer there, it was time to take stock and figure out what was next.

It was a chance for me to reconnect with myself and see how it would feel to stay put for a minute. Keep my eyes in front of me rather than fixed weeks ahead, dreaming of the next adventure. And I discovered that a lot can happen when you stay put. I cultivated deeper friendships, grew my business, and experienced the luxury of getting to know my own city, somewhere I had lived for years but never truly explored.

Of course, then came COVID, and the option to book getaways or backpack the world as the virus wreaked havoc was out of the question. But, for me, that was okay. Around the same time, I was lucky enough to find new love and we holed up through it together. And now, we’re still holed up, but in our own place. Over the last several months, I’ve entered another chapter and it has granted me the space to establish a routine. For the first time, I’m truly taking care of myself: eating well, working out, working hard on some interesting projects, attending language classes in the evening. Just living, nothing novel about it. But that normalcy feels nourishing — what I resisted for so long is serving me well. While I still don’t know for sure where I want to live next year, I am no longer floating. My roots are growing, however shallow. And yet it seems that at precisely this moment, when I start to settle, the need for novelty rears its head, asking, “So, what else is there? Remember the adventures you had? What happened to them? Don’t you miss it?”

The popular psychotherapist Esther Perel regularly talks about this tension between novelty and stability in the context of romantic relationships.

She says:

At the heart of sustaining desire in a committed relationship is the reconciliation of two fundamental human needs. On the one hand, our need for security, for predictability, for safety, for dependability, for reliability, for permanence. On the other hand, for adventure, for novelty, for mystery, for risk, for danger, for the unknown, for the unexpected. Rather than viewing this tension between the erotic and the domestic as a problem to solve, I suggest you view it as a paradox to manage.

While she is speaking of romantic relationships, the sentiment can easily apply to the wider context of our lives. So, how do we manage? Perel believes it’s about getting in touch with the erotic. On her website, she writes, “Eroticism is not sex per se, but the qualities of vitality, curiosity, and spontaneity that make us feel alive.”

She believes that we can access these feelings even within the confines of our daily routines and lives. We don’t need to fly ourselves to Bali to tap into them, though of course there’s certainly nothing wrong with doing that either. She asks us to reframe our thinking about aliveness by going inwards and taking responsibility for our own thoughts and actions, arguing that eroticism always “starts at the source: our self.”

In a blog post on her website, she talks about her practice of asking patients to complete the sentences “I turn myself off when….” and “I turn myself on when…” As she shares, the responses are rarely sexual or focused on someone’s partner.

If we apply this exercise to the realm of our day-to-day lives, it can be empowering, putting the agency back into our hands. We are not fated to be miserable or to always long for the greener grass, rather, when the need for novelty arises, we can thank it as a sign, a reminder to get back in touch with the activities and practices that add vibrancy to our lives. A call to creativity of sorts. How can we work with what we have? How can we be present in our current reality and not wish our life away or blame external factors for our doldrums?

These concepts came into focus for me when I read one my old blog entries:

There’s a paradox I noticed after returning home from nearly a year spent on the road. The paradox being that when I’m living a life of constant travel, at some point, I inevitably start to crave the structure of home life, but when I’m back home and living out my daily routine, I inevitably start to crave the freedom of boundless exploration. Call it human nature, call it wanting what we can’t have, call it our endless quest for the greener grass, but whatever we call it, one thing’s for sure: it can be a tricky little thing to unpack.

Now that I’m here, unpacking it, I realize that while my former self may have searched for a silver bullet answer to this conundrum, today, I’m much more inclined to go with Perel’s counterintuitively erotic idea of “paradox management.” When I feel my wings need some spreading, I honor that rather than taking it as evidence that a drastic change is needed. I plan a night out, or a short trip, or maybe just an evening where I paint and create alone. I take ownership over my feelings and understand that maybe they’re just trying to tell me that I’m leaning too far to one side of the tight rope. I gather myself, adjust my posture, and feel the thrill that comes from walking the line.

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The balance between routine and novelty: give me roots but don’t clip my wings