“Over and over again I have been jolted out of a rut by life—" 1
“Mom, you’re in a rut.”
I was a bit taken aback by the abrupt announcement.
In the two-year hiatus we took in the US, between living in Germany for 17 years and moving to Hungary, our older son, Justin, was with us that first summer before his freshman year in college. He had appeared in the kitchen with his somewhat disconcerting statement.
Before I could formulate a quizzical response, he produced some Middle Eastern cookbooks he had just brought home from the local library.
He was referring to my tried-and-true—and standard—recipes.
My family has generally liked my cooking. Some of my teenagers, to my surprise and delight, even began thanking me for meals. My husband has praised my cooking through the years, which of course is very gratifying. Sometimes, though, I accuse him of trying to insure by his praise that I will keep on.
Justin, apparently, was acquiring grown-up tastes in the gourmet department.
I could have decided to be offended and a little hurt—or I could pick a few Middle Eastern recipes and try them out on my family. I chose the latter. Actually, I was amused.
Somewhere in December, it must have been, I discovered “Date Halva,” an easy-sounding, uncooked cookie-type which might even work as a Christmas cookie. It came from the International Gourmet, Middle Eastern Cooking cookbook. I have no idea if that book is still around. But the Date Halva, this one from Iraq, is still around, at least at our house.
A mix of finely chopped dates, walnuts, almonds, and spices—what’s not to love? The moister the dates, the easier the mixture coheres. (One year, finding only pre-chopped and dried-out dates—a terrible idea—I chopped up raisins and saved the recipe.) And it’s simply fun to put together, roll out thinly, cut out with a round, scalloped cookie-cutter, and finish off with a dusting of powdered sugar. It has been a delightful addition to our Christmas cookie tins, as well as being gluten-free.
Getting out of other kinds of ruts is not always a welcome suggestion and may be far from amusing. I have noticed that certain of my bad habits have definitely formed a rut. Procrastination, for instance, is a rut which can become so mired that it is hard to climb out of. “I’ll deal with that later” wears a groove like a tire-track in the mud, growing deeper and deeper with use.
Marriages, even good ones, can form a rut. In the busyness of child-rearing years, set schedules, and work responsibilities, married life can take on a sameness and a taking-for-granted of the husband-and-wife relationship. To try to counteract this, Trent and I decided to go away once a year for what we called “marriage retreats.” We would farm out our children or have available friends come stay with them in our home, find a B&B not too far away, and take a long weekend just for us—without checking in at home! It may not sound like much, but those became times for us to reassess our marriage and our parenting and to enjoy just being together without the distractions of normal daily life. We looked forward to them every year. We developed some new habits. We even made a few life-changing decisions. Those weekends refreshed us and got us out of what could have become a settled rut without them—and without even noticing a rut was forming.
The human brain carves “ruts”—actual grooves which are shaped as they respond to repeated stimuli. Given enough repetition of the same stimuli, the brain creates so-called “neural pathways” that can determine how we think and respond—even for the rest of our lives. How we think, not to mention what we think, becomes part of our outlook and behavior. We don’t even know it’s happening. But the more we practice a certain behavior, the more it becomes part of us, of who we are and how we negotiate life. It is possible, they tell us, to form new grooves by changing our responses or learning new skills. It takes time, as new habits always do, to re-form the brain.
The author of the above quote, the Swiss psychologist and medical doctor, Paul Tournier, clearly welcomed “being jolted by life” in order to grow beyond his comfortable ruts. The quote continues: “…and this has stimulated my development.”
What other ruts have I formed that I need to be jolted out of? How will I recognize them? How badly do I want to get away from “same old, same old”? Do I dare ask the closest person to me to identify a rut or two in my life? I might begin by watching how I spend my days or weeks or how I respond to people or ideas or suggestions.
Life’s jolts, as unwelcome as they may be, might actually do us the service of helping us develop in new ways.
On the other hand, there are some ruts we do not want or need to break out of. Good habits, certainly, should stay habits.
Neural pathways are actually a created feature of the brain which allows children at the beginning of their brain’s shaping to retain learning. Reading them the best stories over and over again, memorizing poems or songs, drilling the multiplication table, even a repeated telling of Grandpa’s funny but harmless pranks gives them, shall we say, grooves of thinking-patterns as well as knowledge they will be able to draw from into adulthood.
Likewise, routines in a family’s day are helpful ruts: supper around the table, then stories, then bedtime. These “ruts” give security to a child, as well as the growing awareness that there is a predictable order which involves thought and planning ahead on someone’s part.
Interestingly, a concert pianist depends on grooves in the brain from long and repeated practice to allow his or her fingers to fly across the keys. In those moments, the pianist is not consciously thinking about each individual note. Repeated practice has worn the score, so to speak, into their unconscious thought which is then able to come out their fingertips.
Learning a language requires a similar routine that is crucial to mastering it. I knew I was getting the hang of learning German when I no longer had to “translate” every word in my head. It was starting to come out my mouth without my thinking about it. German grooves!
Justin was right, as it turns out. It was fun, getting out of my cooking rut. Date Halva was not my only discovery. I started branching out in the recipe department.
Not all new recipes I experimented with have endured. But that is not the most important thing. Breaking out was the point, trying something new. I have Justin to thank, or I may still be in my comfortable rut.
Have I ever said it? Thank you, Justin!
1 Paul Tournier "Work and Leisure," Learn to Grow Old