On the Frustration & the Beauty of Repetition

As a child I thought I despised repetition. Little did I know that I actually loved it, and practiced it. Just not at school.

“Skill development depends on repetition…” I am reading a book by the American sociologist Richard Sennett on the position and the role of The Craftsman in society. An interesting book. But that sentence would have made me angry. At least, when I was young.

When I was a child I was convinced I hated repetition. I hated it all through elementary school and all through high school. At least, that is what I thought. But I was made to repeat tasks that were much too simple for me. Now I know, that if they had given me Chinese characters to learn, told me to repeat them hundreds, thousands to times, I would have gladly done so.
Because I enjoyed repeating the same piece of music for hours to at least master it a little – having not much talent for the piano, the repetition itself made me happy. Peaceful. Seeing how each repetition was different, maybe just slightly, but always another attempt was possible. Another reaching of that rhythm, that melody, that mode of music that could lift your spirits or not.

I also enjoyed learning poetry by heart. Especially when riding my bicycle, I would have a small piece of paper with a few lines scribbled on them. Again, I have no talent for remembering words, am actually pretty bad at it, but I enjoyed murmuring the words and the  melody and the meaning while I was cycling to school.

When Richard Sennett writes his sentence, and I read it in full, I must acknowledge I deeply agree with him. “Skill development depends on how repetition is organized. (…) As a person develops skill, the contents of what he or she repeats change. (..) This is not obvious. (…) When practisce is organized as a means to a fixed end, then the problems of the closed system reappear; the person in training will meet a fixed target but won’t progress further. The open relation between problem solving and problem finding builds and expands skill, but this can’t be a one-off event. Skill opens up in the way only because the rhythm of solving and opening occurs again and again.”

The things I was asked to repeat in school were this type of closed-circuit, where knowledge was more important than skill. And the skills that were offered were too natural to me. I remember one full year in high school having to learn how to look things up in an atlas. Every class I raised my hand to ask why we had to do this, as it seemed senseless. Every time the teacher grew more frustrated with my question, until I had only to raise my hand for him to shout “we will not be discussing this, Nicole!” It was the only time in my whole school career I was sent to the principal.

But I was wrong to think, back then, that I despised repetition. I loved repetition, and it is how I built skill. And how I enjoyed art. Only a few years ago I read Deleuze’s book Difference and Repetition and elucidating this concept to me. How we long to experience something over and over again, not because we want to do the same thing, but because we want to experience this connectedness, this sense of elevation again and again.

It explains the repetition in prayers. The repeating memorial services so we can connect to that moment in time when something significant happened. It explains why thinking is also a matter of repetition. We need to think everything anew, every day. It is not enough that someone some day has written about it somewhere. We need to connect to that thought again and again.

This is why time is circular.

This is why we repeat the phrase ‘I love you’. Or at least, we should.

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