I’ve been looking up the origins of the proverb “familiarity breeds contempt” and trying to get into the undergrowth of where this comes from. Thanks to the never-ending mycelium threads that have built information online, I have discovered the phrase was first seen in English in the 1300s in one of the Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer. It is in the Tale of Melibee and digging into that tale it is a story of a wife insisting and eventually convincing her husband to forgive his enemies and not go to war for the brutal slaying of their daughter and her own beating. It is quite a tale of advocacy, discernment, gender politics, pacifism and justice. It is not a tale that is highly regarded by scholars and nor was very popular in its time. Further digging, the phrase was attributed to a citizen of Rome who began life as a Syrian slave and live about 50 BCE. His name is known as Publilius Syrus. Other well-known phrases are attributed to him such as ignorance is bliss, honour among thieves, necessity knows no law.
Following a line of thought is a reminder to me of the way our brain works just like mycelium, wandering and picking up fuel along the way before fruit is born. I went looking for the meaning of familiarity breeds contempt on a hunch it might provide me with some guidance, to a whole series of events, completely unconnected that I was involved with during the week. They were all very different – a presentation, a mediation, a public announcement, a menu choice.
I am constantly reminding people that every time we do something we are doing it for the first time. We are never the same person as we were the last time, we might have done the same thing. I first discovered this truth in re-reading books as a young person, as I grew older I found new meaning in exactly the same words as I had previously read, as I was not the same person as I was the last time I had read the same book. New phrases stood out to me, I understood the characters because I had more life experience to draw on, I even saw words I hadn’t seen the first time round, because my vocabulary had improved. It taught me to go back to texts often and be curious about what I might find. It also helped me discover the value and harm of holding assumptions.
We will miss the small, subtle, nuanced changes when we dive in as if we “know it all”. I have done that to my own failing many, many times and it is perhaps why “familiarity breeds contempt” is a phrase I to describe my own behaviour from time to time – a bit like being my own valet – there is nowhere to hide when you are being stripped down to bare truths. I have had deep bruising and still hold much scar tissue from not testing assumptions, suspending judgement, keeping expectations low or making excuses because of the familiar. A good lesson to be reminded of this week in all the quirky and unexpected ways that I might take things for granted. So, while I was seeing this is situations and people around me this week it is reminding me of the Jungian concept of projection. “Although our conscious minds are avoiding our own flaws, they still want to deal with them on a deeper level, so we magnify those flaws in others.” I’ve had a gift this week, to be a little less judgemental and take wise counsel from the wife in the Tale of Melibee, to hold back on the counsel to war, and look for ways to pacify my internal chat and avoid a spill over into a contemptuous tempest. I am enjoying find the mycelium threads and taking a moment to notice what feeds them, how they have the potential for both nourishment and poison and everything in between – after all a food source for one creature can be poisonous to another and that does not have anything to do with the integrity of the either the food source or the fruit.
Yes, yes and yes. A timely reminder. Thankyou Moira.
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