Shirah Vollmer MD

The Musings of Dr. Vollmer

“Spice It Up”

Posted by Dr. Vollmer on November 21, 2013

Marty, sixty-two, retired, has a routine which he has adhered to for the last ten years. On Mondays, he plays bridge. On Tuesdays, he plays scrabble. On Wednesdays, he bikes with a senior pack. On Thursdays, he visits his elderly mom and on Fridays he spends the day with his wife of forty years. Marty says he like his life, but at the same time, he is dissatisfied in ways which feels vague to him, but he still wanted “to explore this uncomfortable feeling.” “Maybe you need to spice it up,” I say, wondering if his routine serves as an obsessional or rigid way of not exploring new avenues of interest. “Routines are great, but like everything else, there is a need for moderation. Too much of a routine can feel confining, whereas too little of a routine can feel unsettling and confusing.” I say, wondering aloud if whether his regimented life has put him into a nice, and sometimes enjoyable, prison. Repetition, although comforting at times, at other times, can feel dull and almost lifeless. “Routines are good to have and they are good to break,” I say, thinking about how hard it can be to fluidly go from knowing what to do every day to wondering about how to have new experiences and new forms of mastery. “Like a long marriage, there is both the possibility of  comfort and boredom, if you are not mindful to continually challenge your relationship.” I say, pushing the point, even further. “I am confused,” Marty says in protest. “I like my life. I am healthy. I am retired. I do what I want. I have nice friends. There is nothing wrong with my life.” He says firmly and definitively. I look at him, and without words, convey the question of, well then, why are we having this discussion? His quick disavowal of dissatisfaction appears to be fear that he could fall into mild, moderate or severe despair about uncomfortable feelings like boredom and monotony. He opens the conversation, but then quickly shuts it down, as unpleasant feelings seem to hit the surface. We do our dance such that the to and fro motion becomes obvious to both of us. “What did you mean by spice?” Marty returns to his dilemma. “I think you know what I mean, but you did not want to go there,” I said, “at least not right now.”

7 Responses to ““Spice It Up””

  1. Jon said

    The existential philosopher Søren Kierkegaard suggested the Rotation Method in his work Either/Or as a way to “spice it up,” – to use the parlance of this blog – to avoid boredom. One changes what one does to increase the pleasure from those activities, similar to the rotation of crops. However, there is a fundamental problem with this approach. Eventually, all activities will become boring, Kierkegaard asserts. His solution is to aim to experience a more meaningful life. Ask less of life, but take control of what one experiences and how one reacts to them.

    • Shelly said

      Jon, I think you’ve hit the nail on the head: perhaps Marty no longer feels that he has a meaningful life because he doesn’t “contribute” to a mechanism that is greater than he is. Working or raising children sometimes makes people feel useful. Perhaps being retired is the issue and he is restless with his routine? He may have a great life, but perhaps he may feel that at this point, he no longer has a purpose?

      • Yes, Shelly, the issue of purpose, particularly as one gets older is an interesting one. Eric Erikson spoke about the need for “generativity”. Erich Fromm speaks about this as well. For Marty, the issue of purpose has not come up, but I suspect that you are right that this may be a sense of “missing” for him.

    • Interesting. My point about my work with Marty is that his routine has become a “prison” and so a re-booting of his relationship to his life will help him to have more meaning.

      • Jon said

        We seem to be saying the same things in different ways. Yes, indeed rebooting Marty’s relationship with his life is of fundamental importance. However, Kierkegaard insight is that just changing the routine is not enough. One must look to the “depth” of providing meaning as well as the “width” of varying the routine.

        • Yes, indeed. We are saying the same thing….You make me think that I should shift from psychoanalytic inquiry to philosophical inquiry. My colleague did get a PhD in Philosophy for that reason, adding on to his many degrees…Maybe that serves to extend both the depth and the width of his horizons…

  2. Ashana M said

    Routine is really helpful when your life is otherwise fairly unstructured–as it is when you’re retired. Paid employment usually provides an overall structure to life that everything then revolves around. But there are two things missing from his current routine that work probably once provided: purpose and challenge. For a short time–and there are probably some people who can do this for years–aimlessness can feel like a holiday. But then it stops being fun, and you need something new to work toward–including both small and large goals–as well as something new you are learning. I don’t think it would probably make much difference if he started playing pinochle instead of bridge sometimes, but he might want to think of what he’d like to use this period of his life for. I think many people have a misguided idea that after a lifetime of work, the thing to do is to take a rest-of-your life holiday, but it doesn’t turn out to be very satisfying generally.

    Most of us have very small lives–we never do anything particularly important or meaningful. But we don’t notice because we are, in fact, satisfied with very little in that regard as long as we are busy, engaged, and purposeful. Marty is no longer busy, engaged, or purposeful.

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