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.
Here is my latest confession: I’ve turned into an Instagram junkie. No shame – it’s slowly become my creative outlet in 2016 in the absence of writing. There doesn’t seem to be enough time to keep this blog alive (at least not right now, in this new phase of my life that’s focused on staying active and getting myself out of the house as much as possible) but I still feel an unyielding desire for artistic expression and creativity that needs to be addressed… And Instagram somehow satisfies that need in a simple and beautiful way. Is that lame? I don’t really care.
There’s something strange and fascinating about my addiction to this tool that I see as a medium for art, because it is simultaneously a vehicle for human interaction and individualized narcissism. (Not to mention that it’s owned by Facebook, an entity that I begrudgingly embrace only because you basically can’t exist in modern times without being on the book.) Art, social, and ego. In my world on Instagram these three very different concepts exist and play together in an interesting way, highlighting and sometimes undercutting each other.
At the most basic level Instagram is a social tool, giving us yet another way to interact with our friends by letting them know what we are up to in a single frame. We will often take this a step further, bringing them in on the action by tagging them when they are in the photos. The act of tagging someone in a picture on Instagram is a modern expression of love to a certain degree – to tag or mention someone in a comment is a deliberate connection with that person in our online world. And in this tech-pervasive society, our online connections are fundamental if not an extension of our offline human relationships – hasn’t it become the status quo to maintain a relationship both online and offline? What’s even more interesting to me is Instagram’s capacity for human interaction beyond our existing connections – by applying a hashtag that is used by thousands (or millions), we can gather likes or new followers and this human interaction with strangers is fulfilling in a very different way.
At a deeper level, Instagram is a tool that feeds our narcissistic egos by allowing us to show ourselves off in a very calculated way. I still believe that everyone filters themselves online by choosing to show a specific narrative about their lives that they want others to see, and this is perfectly epitomized in the act of sharing a photo of oneself with the public. I would never willingly post a picture of myself that I do not absolutely love and while I certainly do not post that many pictures of myself on Instagram, I completely understand why people do. The one time I indulged my narcissistic side and posted a photo of my solitary self grinning at the camera, the overwhelming positive feedback in likes and comments was incredibly rewarding. It gave me a little boost that was totally unexpected, so I agree with and encourage the narcissism (in moderation) because it is healthy to feel good about ourselves and engage in self-love. And sometimes it can be difficult to do this alone, so using this tool to receive positive encouragement and reinforcement can be a good start.
The simple act of tapping that little heart can potentially brighten someone’s day and have a huge impact. This is a beautiful illustration of social and ego playing together on Instagram and it’s one of the reasons that I have come to adore this little application. It is truly a vehicle for beauty, human interaction, and self-love… And as a student of Communications who exited school just as social media was ramping up, it is endlessly thought-provoking and entertaining to look at Instagram from these different angles and through different filters (pun absolutely intended).
The role of the hashtag feels fairly significant in all of this. This is something I learned quickly in my adventures on WordPress – adding tags to a blog post has a direct correlation to the number of people who actually read the post – and the same logic applies on Instagram. Where that element of human interaction is concerned, the hashtag is inarguably a means to an end if your goal is to connect with strangers in this online world. Of course, there are opposing views on the matter, or at least I get the sense that people tend to have varied (and very strong) opinions about the hashtag. Personally, I have mixed emotions.
On one hand, the hashtag is a great way to expose yourself and get your photos in front of a wider audience because a “real” hashtag will invariably get you more likes (which I suppose is sort of the point in view of that element of human interaction and connecting with others). On the other hand, it feels like a contrived attempt at getting the most likes and comments possible to feed the ego, and on top of that it seems completely silly and strange that our entire society now communicates with these little clips of text. I’m even guilty of taking the hashtag offline into verbal communication or text messages… Why? What is it about a hashtag that says something more than the simple words themselves? Is there something more concise or definitive about putting that symbol in front of a word (or many words)? #whydoesthisfeelmoremeaningful than just writing the words themselves?
Ah, the hashtag… An enigma and polarizing entity that I still haven’t wrapped my head around. As a result, I often find myself presenting a mix of both “real” hashtags along with silly and over-the-top “unreal” hashtags that are so unbearably long that nobody could actually make them into something reusable that people would follow. Which is sort of the point, to laugh at the medium of the hashtag and ironically participate while also accepting that this is the norm and way to get that exposure and feeling of community that comes with sharing a photo with strangers. Social and ego, playing together again. My profile is public for a reason – like others, at least I suspect, I am trying to build an online persona that is a mix of a filtered and somewhat unreal version myself while being an equally genuine representation of who I am, what is important to me, and what I find to be beautiful in the world.
This online persona is a projection of who I really want to be. She is happy-go-lucky, open, friendly, artistic, and maybe she does something other than a corporate day job. She is mysterious and creative and has a good eye for framing shots, and just like everyone else online, she knows how to apply a good filter. Her profile is public because she is unafraid of sharing who she is and she wants to embrace the world with open arms. She uses hashtags like #sunset and #montreal unabashedly, not to get more followers but in the hope that she will connect with people.
But of course in this online persona and in real life, I do want to be honest… So let’s get real, I obviously apply a filter on nearly all of the pictures that I post on Instagram… But doesn’t everyone? I don’t think there’s anything wrong with trying to make the world more beautiful and that’s really what the filter allows me to do, at least until Apple finally invents a camera on their phone that can 100% capture the true beauty of the incredible scenes that I frame with my iPhone.
Beyond the feeling that it’s impossible to capture the real thing, it’s equally appealing to me that you can apply a filter onto a photo and all of a sudden something looks that much more beautiful – it can be more glossy, or have a softer edge, or feel classically retro, or be more vibrant and colourful. Suddenly there is something a little unreal about it, and even though you know it is unreal, it still feels somewhat truthful. It is a challenging concept though because this means that I am publicly presenting and giving myself a filtered memory of that moment. When I look back on these pictures, I will have to acknowledge that they are not entirely representative of that precise moment in real life. But memory is already a bit of a haze as it is, so what’s wrong with giving it a nice glow?
With that being said, here in the photos I have shared you should know the unfiltered truth behind them. Some of the nights that I went to watch those sunsets I felt very sad and lonely. Some nights I felt really, really good about myself and thought that I was on top of the world. Some nights I felt very witty and clever and pleased to be taking such beautiful pictures. Some nights I was just content to be watching the sunset while listening to good music. Some nights I felt frustrated and angry with myself for being too focused on posting a picture. Some nights I felt like I was perfectly aligned with the universe and exactly where I was supposed to be. On all of those nights, I am fairly certain that none of these emotions were conveyed in the captions included with those pictures. That’s Instagram. #Filter. #NoFilter.