This might feel familiar. This might be a little repetitive. This might be a reiteration of a train of thought already shared. This might be the beginning of a new pattern: “Keep writing about something until maybe it sort of makes sense and don’t stop until you get to the very heart of it.” This title might seem unoriginal. This title might, in fact, be completely unoriginal. But do you feel it? Do you feel a sense of excitement as you hear a tiny bell ringing in the back of your mind? Do you feel a certain level of recognition and certainty about where this is going? Do you know exactly what I am about to discuss? Do you see the pattern?
Over the last few months, since my feeble attempt to write about repetition last October, I have found myself thinking about questions that prove somewhat difficult to answer: Why do we repeat ourselves? What patterns do we repeat? How do we break the cycle? When do we find ourselves rejecting change compared to when we push against repetition, instead opting to embrace change and try something new? Who drives us to repeat patterns or invent something completely unfamiliar and original? Where do we see patterns repeating themselves in our own lives and in society? The repetition question has been repeatedly coming to mind and with each moment of contemplation I get a new idea that drives me to want to write about this topic again. But, this weird pattern has emerged in my brain where I have this spark of thought about repetition and then I lose it… almost as if my head is trying to prevent me from looking too closely at this recurring phenomenon that is so prevalent in our lives. (What’s up with that, head? You don’t want me to get to the heart of the big questions in life? Too bad, I’m trying today.)
There is obviously comfort in the familiarity of repetition. Think about the little kid who is so excited to do the same things over and over again – playing peekaboo or replaying the same movie or singing the same song or repeating the same silly action over and over. Their pure delight in the action of repetition is fascinating in our investigation of our attachment to patterns, because their little brains are just developing and I like to think of them as a clean slate and representation of who we are at our very core, before we get too sullied by the world around us. And certainly it may be that these children and babies are just thrilled by the content of what is being repeated, but I am inclined to think that there is something happening at a much deeper psychological level.
Seeing the same thing on a loop, to observe something happening over and over, it’s something we continue to enjoy in our adult life. Maybe we aren’t squealing and clapping like the toddler, but we’re just as excited to know what the expected outcome is – perhaps this explains why GIFs have become so popular? But knowing (HA! More like thinking you know) or expecting a certain result can be problematic. Setting an expectation is automatically setting yourself up for disappointment and failure because nothing in life goes exactly as planned and in every pattern we repeat, there will always be a slight difference in the next iteration. And because the evolution of a pattern is so minute in every repetition, it becomes challenging for us to recognize the shift, which might explain why we are so blind to the risk of setting expectations and so eager to repeat the same things over and over.
There is so much repetition in our individual day to day lives. We eat, we sleep, we repeat. We go to work, we follow the same routine – even if our jobs are non-traditional and crazy, that is a form of repetition in its own way, knowing that there is a guaranteed lack of consistency. When I drive to work I am on auto-pilot, I do not think about where I’m going, I just go because I know the route by heart and I drive it twice a day backwards and forwards. Sure, the level of traffic varies and the number of good or bad drivers rises and drops on any given day – but I know the essence of that drive will remain consistent.
We see the same sort of repetition in society – people are born, they are part of a family, they go to school, they graduate, they get a job, they fall in love, they get married, they make their own family, they raise a child, they (probably) get a divorce, and it all happens again and again. So there is this interesting dynamic between the personal individualistic patterns that we follow in our day to day lives, in that the way we do things and repeat ourselves feed into these ancient and traditional patterns that are repeating in society on a much larger scale. At the individual level we repeat patterns that are inherent to our own psyche. We make choices and act a certain way in a repetition and pattern that is core to who we are as a person. But at the societal level, we are doing the same thing collectively in a more universal manner, by participating in and reinforcing the norms and societal constraints of society as we know it. And this raises an even bigger question – which patterns are harder to break, those that we create in our own lives or those that are part of a much larger social construct?
There is a certain degree of paralysis when we attempt to eliminate repetition from our lives. Trying to break or push against any pattern – whether it is at the individual or societal level – is incredibly challenging and difficult because patterns are so inherent to how we behave, how others expect us to behave, and what we expect of ourselves. And when the patterns have been around for years and years, it becomes even more difficult. Right now I find myself questioning these large social patterns and I think many people do, particularly when we look at all the unrest in the world right now with people asking “why aren’t more women in power, why do minorities continue to be repressed, why is it that male white privilege dominates?”
Putting aside those hard-hitting questions, I struggle with the general question of whether patterns and repetition as a whole are good or bad. And like every repetition question I’ve posed, there is no easy answer. I think at the societal level that perhaps we should always be pushing against patterns in an effort to evolve and hopefully become better as a human race – why do what has always been done when maybe another way could be ground-breaking and change our lives? So naturally I tend to have the same idea when it comes to the individual level (don’t just break patterns, smash them!) but there is something that feels a little more challenging in that sentiment because there might be some patterns that we follow that are good for us.
But what is a good pattern and what is a bad one? Certainly the easiest answer here is bad = hurting yourself or someone else but nothing is that black and white and there are countless shades of grey. I’m not sure how we are supposed to identify which of the patterns are good and which of the patterns are bad, or if we are really meant to. The best we can do is try to remain conscious of what we’re doing so we feel less doomed to repeat the same mistakes and patterns that we can identify as resolutely bad or at the very least advisable to avoid.
So maybe the point of all this is just to observe and be aware of the repetition because it seems that we are destined for a life of pattern making. We are locked into doing things again and again, even when we recognize the pattern, even when we are really conscious of the repetition and literally saying “I don’t know why I am doing this again, I know I am going to hurt myself or something bad will happen as a result of what I am doing right now,” somehow we just cannot stop ourselves… So maybe observation and awareness is critical in an effort to just watch it and maybe learn from it in the slightest and smallest way.
This feels right if we consider what I mentioned above about the risk of expectations – that when we repeat ourselves it does change a little bit, that there is a slight difference to the iteration of the pattern. Perhaps by observing and being consciously aware of the patterns and repetition, we learn something and help ourselves to change the pattern incrementally in the littlest ways possible with each reiteration until we reach an ideal state. (I tried very unsuccessfully to convey this in my last post about repetition, so maybe with this iteration I’m going to get it right? If not, I will repeat myself in a few months when I collect my thoughts all over again.)
Let’s imagine our lives and the patterns within them to be like a slow rhythmic dance that repeats itself continually but changes ever so slightly with each return to the start… like a GIF that evolves and changes a tiny bit when it replays… like a song that sounds the same but is just a little bit different and a little bit better because something changes in it with every new listen. In that slow dance, we are looping around the room again and again but never stepping in the exact same place.
It’s a beautiful dance, but it also sounds completely exhausting that we are constantly taking these tiny little steps towards making a change to a pattern that is so intrinsic to and at the very core of our being. But at the same time, life is hard and things do not change overnight. Change is hard and nobody likes it – I know this because the biggest part of my job at the moment is dedicated to implementing a significant change in the way we operate in the company and everyone hates me as the driver of the change… But that’s life. It is one long story, one slow dance, where you grow and change little by little, year after year, month after month, day after day. I have personally seen this slow (yet strangely fast) change happen, especially in the last two years of my life, where it seems that everything has been changing in these tiny little ways through all these new experiences I am having, and I see myself learning from them and reacting differently every time with every passing experience repeating itself while being just a little bit different too.
If at the individual level we accept and acknowledge that we just need to take it slowly and observe the patterns and hopefully learn from them and change them ever so slightly every time we find ourselves repeating something, does the same principle apply at the societal level? Can we come to collective acceptance and acknowledgement that change is slow and that we all need to be united in taking these tiny steps to make the change by observing and being aware of it? I think yes, because in the social dialogue and discourse that we are seeing in recent years, we are doing just that. We are observing, we are questioning, and we are hopefully learning.
It’s a slow dance. We can’t break (or smash!) patterns immediately, as much as I want to. But doing new things that make me uncomfortable, repeating new and old patterns in different iterations, embracing my love of learning… These are all a very gentle twist in my dance across the room. Doing something that is new with no prior pattern or knowledge is exhilarating and terrifying at the same time. We don’t have a template. We don’t know the steps to this new dance. But, watching and modifying the pattern as we go, asking these hard questions, stumbling over our feet as we try a new move on the dance floor, learning and relearning – that’s a dance I’m happy to sway to.