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Leah Hager Cohen: I’m pretty sure the blueprint for my addiction got established in childhood. (wiccked/flickr)

I am an addict. I’ve never admitted this to anyone before, although it’s been going on for as long as I remember. I’m pretty sure the blueprint for my addiction got established in childhood. What I’m hooked on is anticipation, the notion of something splendid shimmering on the horizon.

It needn’t be anything huge, like an overseas voyage or a gala affair. It could be as modest as a walk around the pond with a friend, or a new recipe I’m looking forward to preparing for my family. It could even be the daily mail, regardless of whether or not I’m expecting anything. The thrill lies in the ritual: in hearing the sloppy thunk that means the postman has shoved the mail through the slot, in descending the stairs wondering what I’ll find.

Okay, as addictions go, this isn’t the worst. But when I lack that shimmering something on the horizon, when there’s nothing I’m consciously looking forward to, I get out of sorts. I can’t shake the sense that something’s not quite right with the world; I feel sluggish and vaguely morose, in need of a fix.

When there’s nothing I’m consciously looking forward to, I get out of sorts… I feel sluggish and vaguely morose, in need of a fix.

I had occasion to look hard at this vice within myself recently. The catalyst was a story a friend told about some friends of hers. This couple was trying to get their toddler out of diapers. As incentive for using the potty, whenever the little boy sat on it and produced, his parents would reward him with his favorite treat: a handful of cheddar crackers in the shape of bunnies. My friend described how adorable it is to see him, upon finishing his task, display excitement about what’s to come. She described how his parents would stoke his anticipation: What comes now… What does Toby get? and how the little boy would beam and wriggle in burgeoning anticipation until he could hardly contain himself. Clearly, the story was meant to charm. Yet I found it made me uncomfortable.

Years ago, my youngest child attended a preschool run by a wisely loving woman. What a quiet place it was. I don’t mean the children were quiet — they sang, chattered, laughed, shouted and cried just as you would expect. It was the rhythm of the place that was quiet, the sameness of the weeks’ structure, the low key way that activities were introduced. Each day the children helped prepare snack from scratch, and the days of the week were marked by an unvarying rotation: Monday, rice; Tuesday, soup; Wednesday, applesauce; Thursday, bread; Friday, porridge. If a new plaything came into the school (squares of colored silk for dress-ups, bales of hay for outdoor play), it was unheralded by fuss or fanfare. If a child expressed enthusiasm about some event coming up in her life, her excitement would be acknowledged with gentle equanimity, not mirrored back at twice its natural size.

In the beginning I found this dearth of animation surprising, even a bit dour. But soon I came to see not only how it lent the school a profound air of peacefulness, in which each moment has equal value, no matter how plain or dazzling according to common standards — I came to realize as well how good it felt to me, how tranquil and content and strangely nourished I felt every time I came to drop off or pick up my child.

I had only to step over the threshold and gone was my persistent hunger for something tantalizing on the horizon. Gone was my need for some future promise that could make the humdrum present palatable. In fact, I noticed the present was not actually humdrum. I saw how the pattern of anticipation and reward learned in childhood becomes an endlessly unfulfilling cycle in which neither the present nor the future is capable of delivering gratification, and the desire for anticipation always returns to gnaw.

The pattern of anticipation and reward learned in childhood becomes an endlessly unfulfilling cycle in which neither the present nor the future is capable of delivering gratification…

Now I understood why my friend’s story saddened me. I suspect that the cheddar bunnies quickly lost their power to completely satisfy the little potty-training boy, and that he learned to crave recurrences of the whipped-up anticipatory frisson his parents created for him with such evident pleasure.

This is hardly meant to point the finger at those parents. Just as the blueprint was instilled in me, I am sure I have unwittingly instilled a similar blueprint in my own children. And of course we live in a culture that whips us up relentlessly, a society whose very economic well-being has become famously reliant on keeping its citizens in a state of constant, mindless desire — a recipe for unhappiness whose cure cannot simply be unhooking ourselves from materialism, for the pattern goes deeper than commodity hunger.

In fact, the cure might be learning a new kind of materialism, a materialism of the present, in which we find worth in cloth and hay, applesauce and porridge, soil and snowflakes and skin. How grateful I am, as I continue to work on unlearning my attachment to anticipation, that I was once exposed to that special school where the routines were quiet and steady, and the children were encouraged not to wriggle for the future but to immerse themselves fully in the moment at hand.

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