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.
The other day I was listening to my (perfectly) curated “Fall Fall Fall” seasonal playlist made by yours truly on Spotify and as one of my favourite tunes came on I had this unexpected epiphany about the song that sent me into a spiral of random and interconnected thoughts about repetition. Herein is my attempt to summarize those thoughts in a (hopefully) coherent and eloquent manner for no reason other than getting it out of my brain and onto (virtual) paper. Let me repeat: This is random, but it is interconnected. Or if anything, it feels interconnected. Let’s start by playing this song on repeat:
This lovely track by The Morning Benders has been a favourite of mine for a few months – it inevitably makes it onto most of the playlists that I put together and whenever I hear it I always get all sorts of feels. It’s got all the good things you want to hear in a great song: A slow build up at the beginning, a rolling drum that prevails through the course of the 5 minutes of song, a bridge that sucks you in by dropping most of the instruments and focusing mainly on layered vocals before building back up with all the sounds… It’s a goodie. I’ve listened to it countless times (often on repeat) and love love love it. But something clicked for me the other day when it came on that I had never noticed before. Right around the 40 second mark, after that awesome introductory build up at the beginning of the song, the music swells with strings and a very familiar melody comes into play… Do you hear it?
Did I imagine it, or is there something resonating in those strings that sounds just a little like the strings in this endlessly classic love song? It isn’t exactly the same but there’s this slight familiarity that suddenly became very apparent to me in that moment and I haven’t been able to shake it since. This isn’t to say that I think “Excuses” is copying “At Last” – it’s been years since I’ve read sheet music but I’m sure if you put these two songs side by side they would differ – and it’s quite possible that nobody else will hear this the same way that I do. But to me, the connection is there and it only made me love the song even more.
This newly born enhanced admiration is fascinating. Why is it that I love something even more now that it reminds me of something else that I’ve loved for ages? Is it the familiarity? Is it like the comfort of an old and trusted friend? Is it the fact that repetition is something that I love and embrace whenever possible? I’m certainly guilty of incorporating repetition into my life on a regular basis – songs are repeated multiple times across the playlists that I create on Spotify, I’ve re-read books that I adore countless times (can I get an amen from other HP fans out there?), I will happily watch my favourite TV shows or movies multiple times to the point that I can throw out obscure quotes without any prompting, and I even feel the act of writing this blog to be one of the most feel-good repetitive activities in my life. And now, as I write these words, it is starting to occur to me that it’s not really surprising at all that I love repetition, because it allows me to fill my life with things that I know I adore with complete certainty.
If we apply this idea universally, I think it explains why we see (and more importantly, accept) repetition in so many areas of our lives. We all love the chorus of a song because it’s same words repeated over and over, allowing us to recognize, appreciate, and sing along. It seems like every other song on the radio these days includes a sample from an older song that we all know and love… And because these new artists are drawing from classics that are timeless, they are sure to pull in a wider audience – even the kids who don’t know the original may feel a nostalgic familiarity when they hear the music, perhaps from that one time on the radio when they were quite young or at a distance from an older sibling’s bedroom. Reboots of old movies and sequels seem to achieve the same thing – it’s like all of Hollywood collectively had a realization that remakes and extensions of stories = box office gold. What’s not to love? A classic story is timeless, so retelling it with a slightly new spin is just another way to relive it again and again.
In my English Literature days at university, one of my graduating seminar courses was all about those epic stories that we retell over and over thematically with only minor changes in the plot. The fight of good against evil. The flawed hero. The journey to a distant land and triumphant (or sometimes bittersweet) return home. The evolution of a character from naive youth to wise (or disillusioned) adulthood. Do we tell the same stories and love them unconditionally because their formulaic beginning, middle, and end are predictable but still surprising in their minor variances? What’s that saying? “We are creatures of habit.” We embrace the repetition because we know what to expect and are delighted when what we thought would happen transpires exactly as we predicted.
It’s such a funny concept, because we love that predictable and comfortable feeling of repetition but we are equally thrilled when we are presented with something completely new. Every album by Radiohead is drastically different than the last and nothing ever sounds like anything they’ve done before… And while that consistency of newness is an act of repetition in itself, that novelty produces a feeling unlike anything I can get out of listening to a favourite old song on repeat. The same goes for a film or any type of story that shocks us with a surprise ending or twist along the way that goes against the conventional story-telling that we’ve come to expect in our repeat-saturated society. I love a movie that ends with the main characters not reuniting after a ridiculously romantic grand gesture. I adore stories that end abruptly with no clear indication as to the resolution or aftermath of the climax. I like it when we abandon the repetition every now and then.
This tension between the conventional and unconventional has been on my mind for a few days. I know without question that I love repeat offenders. But I know that I have an equal passion for that which is brand new and unfamiliar – I’ve even written about embracing that type of discomfort on this very blog in the last year. And while the focus of this post has been purely around stories and music, my line of thinking extends to how we live our lives and interact with each other. So much has changed in my life in the last year and while I’ve settled into new routines (thereby grounding myself in repeating familiar daily and weekly activities), I’ve also found myself venturing into unknown territory that’s far from the standard mould of life that I (or society) believed was the only way of living. I followed one template for life (and lived it well) for many years and then it fell apart… Leading me to question if that template is the right one for me, or if there is a different template that exists that I ought to follow, or if I just need to live life without any template at all… Which would be a life of zero repetition in the act of doing things differently and embracing the new or unknown. (Scary! Maybe Exciting!)
As I run through the list of things that repeat in my life that I love passionately, #1 on the list has to be the changing of the seasons. The consistency of observing one season melt into the next is probably one of the most beautiful markers of the passage of time in my life. Spring will always follow Winter. The leaves will always change colour as Summer transitions to Fall. The sun will set in a different spot in the sky throughout the course of a year. In this corner of the world, I know with certainty that the seasons at their very core will always be a constant in my life and that’s incredibly comforting. But, at the same time, I know that every season will be a little bit different than the last… We can know without question that it will eventually snow here, but when and how much is unknown.
So maybe that’s the trick to finding a balance between repeat offenders and new inventors. We can embrace repetition by acknowledging and nodding to things that occurred in the past while simultaneously valuing and striving for something just a little bit different and somewhat new within the act of repeating. For all I know, “Excuses” is an intentional riff on “At Last” (I think that they are both hopelessly romantic in their own way within their respective eras). This blog is often an unintentional source of repetition – whenever I write a post, I question if I’ve used the same words too many times or if I’ve repeated certain phrases or ideas in older posts, but even in that doubt I know that there’s a unique story in every post, even when it refers back to something I’ve already spoken about. And anyway, I think I’ve decided that repetition isn’t necessarily a bad thing… In fact, I actively embraced it today. (Did you notice the repeated use of brackets? Didn’t I already have a blog post title that refers to repeat offenders? Did I use the word repetition a lot? Did I ask several open-ended questions?) Let me repeat: This is random, but it is interconnected.