Life is Repetition. Deal with It.

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 The usual good music has been replaced by an odd and uninspiring band.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.

4 thoughts on “Life is Repetition. Deal with It.

  1. Thank you for the snippets from Kierkegaard. I really want to read him at length. I read your post quickly because I’m so fully involved with the repetitiveness of family life at the moment I can’t do it justice, but I am leaving it open to read more deeply when the children are napping 🙂 And I read enough to know that this is a topic that I have thought a lot about, and I appreciate your musings.

  2. Hello
    I do not want to be a bothering one, but you sound like Greek philosophers. They seems like though they got to the core of the each and every aspect of life, they know of and do not know of. Because of that life became so boring for them, and following them. I do not feel that way. I am married man, who read the Bible. I have 7 kids, and every day is a challenge. New things happening, never the same as before. New friends, – I have moved, – new enemies kinda appearing from the fog of the many faces around me. New reasons to be aware of, new ways of the life in the new place. New challenges in construction of the lean-to, new problem with my honey bees, since I have moved about 7 hours of driving to the north. New soil, new plants, new bugs, new snakes, new bigger moos walking by. Bigger ones. More calmer, than in the south. New road, new people, new way the handle turns in the city – never shows with the blinkers their attentions. New weed places, more than any other places in the country I have seen before, in my 10 years of driving semi-truck. Almost every gas station has casinos. Everything is new. Even new experience, when I read my Bible. Especially this area is all new. More I read, more I see, how God is worked His way throughout the centuries, to reach me.
    I have no idea, why do you have all the same. May be because your spiritual life is not moving, you staying at the same spot, being fully confident in yourself, that you got it all, you achieved it all, you know it all. Try one week of missionary support trip to wild places in the world. You will see two things to do – run back to catch the very same plane that delivered you to over there, or stay for lifetime, or as long as you can, to achieve the goal – at least one soul’s salvation, per Bible. Not just by performing some rituals. But witnessing this new creation, new life, new approach of the newborn person to the same problems. You will see than, that life is different. Every minute.

  3. Just to finish up with some finishing statements. Sorry for that, but it is so – when people on the move, not stale, not stopped, not sitting in the same spot because of no power, or will to move – you will experience all the same. Because you sit under one biggest problem all the time – you have lost your salvation. Due to many big or small reasons. One of them you stopped to read the Bible. I do remember my father. He survived Soviet GULAG, and his advise was – read your Bible, only Bible, to find answers to all that you do not understand in Bible, life, experience. I have discovered 1 Kings 1-3 for myself, as new point in my understanding of the situation of the Israel, and churches now. How people did wrong than, and repeat same mistakes today, with same goal in mind – illegal grip of power, seat, position, glory, fame, etc.
    Everything that is not legal by God’s judgement, will be ended in NEW crush, deadly one. It is short description of great colorful picture I have discovered about 3 weeks ago. It is my spine cord now, when I speak to the kids each evening before we leave for bad. It is what I am preaching about in church for 2 months now. It has so many subjects, I can’t count them all. VERY colorful picture. I did not see it before. NEW subject for me. New lessons, or warnings. New, new, new, …, …, ………….

  4. Mike, I fear that you may have missed the entire point of the article. Let me say what is in the article in a way you may understand better using your experience gardening. The work of gardening is a labor of repetition at its core, yet the experiences one gains from the work is new every time. This is the point. One needs to understand that repetition is the way in which reality is grounded and trustworthy so that one can experience life in its ever changing freshness. There is no plant unless the soil, water, and light do what they’ve done since the beginning of creation – never changing. And because of this cycle of repetition one can trust that when they plant the seed and work the soil they can expect new crops. You can apply it to your 7 children. I’m sure there is never a dull moment, but remember when you were changing diapers every day, feeding, changing their clothes, etc? This is the repetition that can wear many people out. However, this article attempts to expose why such work is so rewarding and why repetition can be beautiful.

    Also, Mike, I’m sure you’re a really nice guy, but you come off like a complete prick in your posts; accusing someone you never met of thinking he knows everything and then stating that he has lost his salvation because you already know everything about him and God, that you know if he reads the Bible, that you know if he’s been on missions (both of which I’ve done – I speak as a fool – to a degree that would probably dwarf your experience, but I wouldn’t know that because I don’t know you, nor would I use it to make myself out to be something), that I’m not at peace with God and have lost my salvation because I “have a broad spectrum of interests,” and that you are correct because you are a redneck and I’m an intellectual, or some nonsense like that. I will allow you to continue posting here if you wish, but please don’t not work out your insecurities on me. Otherwise please make these your last visits.

    Thanks!

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