It's funny to me how in times of duress, we reach for the things that are the most familiar, the most well-worn, the most molded to our embrace. Whether it's our mother's cooking, a cute furry troll, or the 25th time reading Pride and Prejudice, there is a powerful amount of comfort in the things we know the most thoroughly. Perhaps it's due to the lack of threat: A story that I've read thirty times already holds no potential to really challenge me, push my thoughts, heighten my pulse or bring me to the edge of my seat. It's like making ten cups of tea with the same tea leaves — the complex flavors are gone and all you're left with is the sweet succor of honey.
In some ways, this seems odd; theoretically it would make sense if we welcomed a new experience when feeling low. After all, if you've been laid off, dumped, or are just plain ill, isn't the natural response to escape the current predicament in some way? It seems that burying yourself in a new novel or meeting a new friend would be a great distraction and a way to potentially lift the spirits. In practice, though, this never seems to be the case. I, for one, will reach for the familiar even if there are objectively far better options available. If I'm sick I'm usually in the rattiest old bathrobe and sweats I have. If I've had a bad day at work, I'm reaching for the simplest, cheapest bourbon in the cabinet. And like probably every other human on the planet, I sometimes even crave my mother's cooking. (Sorry, Mom. Yeah, I know I'm getting coal for Christmas this year.)
I think this is universal. We want our dearest old friend, that threadbare childhood plush toy that we still secretly hide in the back of our closet, the movie of which we can recite every single line from memory. This has been on full display in our house this past week, as all four of us endured the Great Stomach Scourge of 2012. My four-year-old suddenly desperately desired a pacifier. The toddler, despite recently experiencing a strong (and totally awesome) Daddy phase, suddenly went into full All Mommy All The Time mode. And the wife, at least for those times when she managed to escape the enticing clutches of the down comforter, could be seen trying to keep down ginger ale and saltines (her mother's remedy, naturally) and reading books so worn from use that the spine no longer possesses the strength to hold the pages together.
As for me, I reached for my childhood remedy: two hands wrapped around a sturdy controller. PC gaming sure wasn't going to happen, as that would have required at least half my body to be upright, and the mere idea of that started my stomach on calisthenics. But that still left a lot of options. Like any good Gamer With a Job, the pile — she always looms large. There are always fun new games that eagerly vie for my attention in their shiny green plastics and colorful candy-coated wrappers. But you see where this is going, don't you?
In my defense, officer, I did spend several minutes perusing the collection before I settled on something — but there was always some excuse to dismiss each title. That loaned copy of Assassin's Creed: Revelations? Yeah, I'm curious to see how that story turns out, but the thought of stabbing a bunch of people in the stomach kind of turns my own. L.A. Noire? Could be cool, but I dunno if I'm up for an investigation or six. Child of Eden? Hahaha no. New Super Mario Bros. Wii? Sounds like fun, but ... well, it is really familiar in a way ... I mean, that was probably what I was playing when I was sick as a kid ... but unknown levels, on a still relatively unused controller configuration, and kind of twitchy to boot? I simply can't muster the desire to pluck you from my shelf.
Then I saw Final Fantasy XIII. I'd been meaning to get back to it for a while, but something newer and shinier always took precedence (coupled with that somewhat-compulsive desire to move all games to the "played" column like some giant to-do list). It's a game that I had, in some form or another, spent a lot of time with in the last year for other purposes, watching every cut-scene multiple times and probably spinning the soundtrack 50 times or more. I knew the story. I knew the battle system. I knew the music like the back of my hand, despite still discovering new wrinkles every time I hear it. The desire to experience again in its intended form, as a whole entity for entertainment purposes (not clinically dissected for educational purposes), was overwhelming. I really needed chicken soup — except the chicken was a game. And the noodles were also a game. Or something like that.
There is a powerful comfort in that which is most familiar to us. It won't excite us, but neither will it let us down. Mr. Darcy is not suddenly going to berate me for a botched report. Alyosha isn't going to start mugging old Russian ladies in the street. Totoro isn't going to grow fangs and devour the Fanning sisters (unless you spend a lot of time on DeviantArt). We need something a little distracting, but nothing that will move the needle too far. It feels good to settle in.
And settling in is exactly what I do. Gingerly hunkering into the worn leather, I spend some time getting the pillow positioned just right. I close my eyes as the opening cut-scene lays out the tale. I don't need to watch this; I can picture exactly what's happening in my head. It's almost cathartic, really, and my muscles ease their tension a little more at this exercise. My awareness and focus lessen a bit, relaxation kicks in; it feels safe. The first strains of "The Promise" waft through the TV speakers — a promise of comfort, of familiarity ... of just what the doctor ordered.