It’s another Monday morning at Hodges Bend. The coffee is more chocolate tasting than usual, maybe it’s just because I didn’t drown it in cream this time. The usual good music has been replaced by an odd and uninspiring band. It’s one of those technically talented bands that tries too hard to prove itself with off rhythms and exaggerated vocal trills. The hum of the usual people coming and going is soothing. My favorite barista-bartenders are suppressing their usual angst with their usual smiles. One of the part owners of the place was just in sporting that ‘recovering-from-the-weekend’ look. I worry about this guy, always have. My therapeutic Spidey senses tell me he’s the type who has a lot of fun with life and an equal amount of depression to match. I’d talk to him about it but I’m usually here working through my own issues, and today is no different.
They come and go, but today unlike any other work day I get to stay, not go. It’s my birthday. And like an 8-year-old I always take off work for my birthday, been doing so my entire adult life. It’s like my own private New Year’s Day.
July 1st is the exact middle point of the year so I use it as a day of serious reflection on how my actual New Year’s resolutions are holding up: which one’s need revising, and which ones I’ve ignored or underplayed to the point that I either need to start over or throw them out completely (becoming fluent in German is on the chopping block at the moment, but I hesitate to throw it out after so much work)(even thought about writing part of that sentence in German, but realized I couldn’t)(sad)(and yes, I can put as many parenthetical phrases together as I want because it’s my birthday).
During my reflecting what I’m reminded of most is the sheer repetition of life. From grand cosmic events like the sun rising and setting each day, to the wholly mundane repetition of breath (without which I would be dead before the end of the next paragraph), repetition is life.
There is nothing particularly challenging in breathing or enduring the rising sun each day, but when I stop to consider the repetitious quality of most things it can be a bit of a downer. Actually, it can be down right depressing.
My relationship with repetition is multifarious. Usually the very things that grind my soul down to a nub, the very things that cause me the most suffering and pain, are the very things I prize most. This is no mind-blowing revelation; I mean, it’s basically the conclusion everyone comes to when they take inventory of what matters most. Be it a spouse, kids, business, religion, whatever, if it matters to you it will make you suffer. But the alternative is far worse. Having nothing that matters is pure hell.
It reminds me of what Kierkegaard once said: Marry and you will be miserable, don’t marry and you will be miserable. Either way you will be miserable.
I believe he wrote that line to be sardonic, and I’m glad for it. Kierkegaard’s sarcasm has saved my life more than once. But his writing regarding repetition is some of the most insightful I’ve ever found. In the experience of repetition he discovered a key to life that I am just now starting to wrap my mind around after 43 of these birthdays. Since he said it far better than I could ever hope of retelling in my own words, I will quote him at length.
In his work conveniently entitled “Repetition”, Kierkegaard begins by comparing repetition with recollection:
“Recollection is a discarded garment that does not fit, however beautiful it is, for one has outgrown it. Repetition is an indestructible garment that fits closely and tenderly, neither binds nor sags… recollection is a beautiful old woman with whom one is never satisfied at the moment; repetition is a beloved wife of whom one never wearies, for one becomes weary only of what is new.”
He continues in a vein that I have come to cherish in many aspects of my life, in particular my family and my religion. He says:
“He alone is truly happy who is not deluded into thinking that the repetition should be something new, for then one grows weary of it. It takes youthfulness to hope, youthfulness to recollect, but it takes courage to will repetition.”
Kierkegaard goes on to explain that the degree to which a man can will repetition is the “more profound a human being he is.” Why does it take courage to will repetition and how does embracing repetition demonstrate one’s profundity? This bleeds into a long discussion, but stated briefly from my own experience, I believe most people are terrified of life. Why else do we struggle to “pass the time” so as not to experience what time actually feels like when it is not filled with the new and the exciting, or at a minimum when it is not diverted with whatever distraction is most available at the time? Why does boredom “bore” into us so painfully? As I experience it, it is because repetition reminds us of our mortality—that we die. If we did not die then why would anything matter? What would it matter if I married and had kids? I could just get married in 700 years. Why rush? But because there is a limit we rush. We attempt to get out of life what we feel must be gotten, and repetition—repeating the same thing over and over—is wasting precious time to get what must be gotten.
This is the delusion: that what must be gotten from life is always the new, the novel.
Kierkegaard continues discussing why repetition is “actuality and the earnestness of existence.” He writes:
“The person who has not circumnavigated life before beginning to live will never live; the person who circumnavigated it but became satiated had a poor constitution; the person who chose repetition—he lives. He does not run about like a boy chasing butterflies or stand on tiptoe to look for the glories of the world, for he knows them. Neither does he sit like an old woman turning the spinning wheel of recollection but calmly goes his way, happy in repetition. Indeed, what would life be if there were no repetition? Who could want to be a tablet on which time writes something new every instant or to be a memorial volume of the past? Who could want to be susceptible to every fleeting thing, the novel, which always enervatingly diverts the soul anew? If God himself had not willed repetition, the world would not have come into existence… and it continues because it is a repetition.”
The world does not have repetition, the world “is a repetition”. That’s heavy.
If this is true, that life is a repetition, then to not have a good relationship with repetition means not having a good relationship with life. I see this constantly played out in the neurotic attempt by people to live in their thinking, to live in their abstract realities: what they will be in the future, or what they were in the past. I am the king of this. Most of my experience of life has been lived in my head. I can testify that nothing lived in my head was ever actually lived, and the after effect of living like a disembodied mind has felt like decades lost. I worry about waking up one day in my 60’s or 70’s with the feeling that I’m still 35, with the psychological expectation that when I look in the mirror I will see a 35 year old self. What a torture! And I know that will be the case if I do not fully embrace the reality of repetition and juice it for all its worth. My wife deserves a better husband, my kids a better father.
My faith has brought this reality closer than Kierkegaard ever could. As I have experience liturgy every Sunday for the last 10 years I am involved with the epitome of repetition. Liturgy is almost totally unchanged from week to week, except for certain festivals or occasional rites. Yet from the very first liturgy I experience to the present I have never felt that it was the same. Each time is a completely new experience and it is due to the repetitious nature of liturgy that makes its ‘newness’ possible. Repeating the same prayers, the same psalms, with the same tones, the same crossing, the same kneeling, etc., provides a consistency that my soul learned to trust. With this trust in place I am free to experience the ever-same God in an ever changing, fresh way. In the same way that when one tastes of a single sip of wine he knows what the rest of the barrel tastes like; in the trust of consistency he is free to enjoy each taste anew depending on the condition of his palette—not the condition of the wine.
Applied to everyday life, repetition is the sure thing—the reminder that what I am involved with is actual life and not my imagination. There is no doubt no matter how one slices it: repetition is a suffering, but it is a suffering that builds (or can build). I know that I can easily continue to outmaneuver repetition by distractions and by floating away in my abstract thinking and avoid the immediate pain of repetition. And I know that there is no surer way to lose everything.
Thanks for reading.