“With each successive mission, space exploration becomes a little more routine. To the point, incredibly, of boredom,” writes Mary Roach in Packing for Mars. Humans are incredibly adaptable, and that means that we adjust to extraordinary circumstances and accept them as normal once they have been part of our lives for a long enough period of time. In Packing for Mars Roach explains that this has happened with space travel. Riding a massively explosive rocket outside the earths atmosphere and living in a confined space beyond the protective shell of the Earth is an incredible achievement for all of humanity. And it is also routine and hardly thought about by most people. In some ways it is inspiring that space travel is hardly inspiring. It means we have succeeded beyond a level any human could have imagined just a couple hundred years ago. It is also, however, somewhat depressing. It means we don’t recognize just how far our technological innovations have taken us, and we don’t always appreciate just how much we have learned and done through scientific exploration.
Today is an interesting time to be thinking about human adaptability, unprecedented times that become normal and routine, and major discoveries that could reshape our world. We have been dealing with a global pandemic that many of us have simply accepted at this point in time. Many of us just want to ignore it and move on with our lives. We have adapted to the risks of COVID-19, maybe modified our behaviors and life patterns a little bit, and we barely think about the number of cases and deaths from the disease each day. Early in the pandemic I spent an unreasonable amount of time looking at case statistics, charts, and trend lines of what was happening with the virus. Now, with two vaccine doses under my belt (or in my arm) I hardly think about case counts, even though I am aware of breakthrough infections and rising deaths across the country. I have simply adapted and the story of COVID-19 as normal and sometimes boring. I know I am not the only one in this boat, and that is part of why the pandemic hasn’t ended.
The pandemic also brought us breakthroughs with MRNA vaccines in the last year, a big scientific step forward in fighting diseases and developing vaccines for many diseases in the future. This was the key to returning the world to some sort of normalcy and vaccine news was huge for a few months, but now my sense is that many of us expect to get a booster shot, but that it barely registers in our day to day thinking. Vaccines, just as space travel, are amazing, but routine and boring (at least for the 49.6% of Americans who are vaccinated according to the CDC on 8/28/2021).
I think it is important that we be aware of how adaptable we are as human beings. Just as we get used to the idea of people living on space stations and vaccines being developed for deadly diseases, we adapt to our spouses and partners who were once the most exciting sparks in our lives. We adapt to the houses we live in, the cars we drive, the restaurants we eat at, and everything that becomes a normal part of our routines. We become bored living lives that our ancestors could only dream of. We fail to appreciate how wonderful some of the relationships in our lives are, we stop being thankful for the nice things we live with, and we become bored with miracle innovations like safe drinking water. When we don’t appreciate these things we don’t give them the attention they deserve, and things can break down and atrophy, only to remind us of how fortunate we were to have that thing. We should pause and think about how amazing our lives may be (recognizing that many of us have serious challenges to overcome in our lives), and we should try to be amazed by even the simple things we have come to take for granted. We are incredibly adaptable and that can help us survive in extreme circumstances, but it can also mean that we fail to appreciate the small miracles that make our lives worth living.