Monday, November 16, 2009

Do It Again!

A couple weeks ago I re-read G.K. Chesterton's literary masterpiece, Orthodoxy. It's a book that I read once a year, and its pages are so full of wit and verbal brilliance that I am always struck with new thoughts and ideas. The book itself is fairly short, but thoroughly enjoyable from cover to cover. Rather than using dull and dry arguments for why Christianity must be true, he recounts his own personal religious journey using a plethora of vivid word pictures and imaginative metaphors. As a scholar, he possesses a remarkable grasp of knowledge concerning a vast array of subjects, and yet, as a wordsmith, every single illustration, citation and explanation in the book is presented using words that are both a pleasurae to ponder and a joy to quote. But, I digress. The point of this blog is to express one train of thought that Chesterton adeptly conveys, which I felt to be quite stirring. In fact, the immense pleasure I derive from reading and re-reading Orthodoxy is a prime example of the supreme enjoyment that Chesterton suggests is the deepest meaning of a childlike delight in repetition. Chesterton writes:

All the towering materialism which dominates the modern mind rests ultimately upon one assumption; a false assumption. It is supposed that if a thing goes on repeating itself it is probably dead; a piece of clockwork. People feel that if the universe was personal it would vary; if the sun were alive it would dance. This is a fallacy even in relation to known fact. For the variation in human affairs is generally brought about, not by life, but by death; by the dying down or breaking off of their strength or desire. A man varies his movements of some slight element of failure or fatigue. He gets into an omnibus because he is tired of walking; or he walks because he is tired of sitting still. But if his life and joy were so gigantic that he never tired of going to Islington, he might go to Islington as regularly as the Thames goes to Sheerness. The very speed and ecstacy of his life would have the stillness of death. The sun rises every morning. I do not rise every morning; but the variation is due not to my activity, but to my inaction. Now, to put the matter in a popular phrase, it might be true that the sun rises reguarly because he never gets tired of rising. His routine might be due, not to a lifelessness, but to a rush of life.
There are several ideas and themes touched on in this little paragraph, yet that one idea really jumped out at me. The idea that a rejoicing in monotony could be such a positive thing almost seems an oxymoron. After all, the very word monotony has many negative connotations attached to it. Monotony seems to lead inevitably to boredom. A teacher or speaker who speaks in a monotone is the most dull and unexciting sort to listen to. Monochrome movies aren't nearly as rich and sensually appealing as films in color. My first thoughts were that monotony couldn't possibly be a good thing. After all, it is commonly said that variety is the spice of life. It would seem that the key to an excess of life and joy would be an abundance of variety and not an excess of repetition. Yet, as I got beyond my initial thoughts and began to ponder Chesterton's little idea, the more true it seemed--beyond true, it seemed incontrovertible! Many of the highest pleasures in life are things that we do again and again. While you might watch a movie you enjoy once or twice, any movie that you love you will inevitably watch many times and perhaps memorize all the key lines. While I have fairly broad tastes in music and listen to all sorts of tunes, the albums I listen to most frequently are the ones from my favorite band; I listen to them again and again because they are thoroughly delightful to me. Your closest friends are the people that you want to see again and again, while the friends you're not as attached to you only see occasionally. Indeed, while there are many enjoyable things that one does only once, all of the most enjoyable activities are the things one does repeatedly. Chesterton builds his idea even more:

The thing I mean can be seen, for instance, in children, when they find some game or joke they specially enjoy. A child kicks his legs rhythmically through excess, not absense, of life. Because children have abounding vitality, because they are in spirit fierce and free, therefore they want things repeated and unchanged. They always say, "Do it again"; and the grown-up person does it again until he is nearly dead. For grown-up people are not strong enough to exult in monotony. But perhaps God is strong enough to exult in monotony. It is possible that God says every morning, "Do it again" to the sun; and every evening, "Do it again" to the moon. It may not be automatic necessity that makes all daisies alike; it may be that God makes every daisy separately, but has never got tired of making them. It may be that He has the eternal appetite of infancy; for we have sinned and grown old, and our Father is younger than we. The repetition in Nature may not be a mere recurrence; it may be a theatrical encore. Heaven may encore the bird who laid an egg. If the human being conceives and brings forth a human child instead of bringing forth a fish, or a bat, or a griffin, the reason may not be that we are fixed in an animal fate without life or purpose. It may be that our little tragedy has touched the gods, that they admire it from their starry galleries, and that at the end of every human drama man is called again and again before the curtain. Repetition may go on for millions of years, by mere choice, and at any instant it may stop. Man may stand on the earth generation after generation, and yet each birth be his positively last appearance.
It is fascinating to realize that children are more simply entertained and amused than adults. The young are more easily delighted with simpler things, and willing to do them longer and more often because of the joy they take in such things. Adults are quickly bored, and have such high expectations towards people and experiences that few can satisfy. Especially in affluent modern America, we are so used to having the best that anything ordinary seems almost too plain to enjoy. It does take a certain strength and a certain mindset to exult in monotony. Yet, the reward for such inner strength is continually joy. Looking it from that perspective, boredom clearly reveals a failure of perspective, a lack of desire or expectations that are too high. Chasing after pleasure by trying new things constantly and seeking entertainment frantically is utterly the wrong way to go about finding joy and delight. While there is a measure of happiness found in enjoying new things, the most enjoyable things are those that we do again. Trying a new frozen yogurt shop may result in a measure of pleasure. But, revisiting your favorite frozen yogurt shop will be a much more enjoyable experience. Listening to new music will be fun, but listening to music that you already love won't disappoint. Making new friends is fun, but spending time with people you already love will inevitably be a joyous celebration of kinship. While dating many women brings a certain amount of pleasure, there is greater joy to be found in marrying one amazing woman than the eternal philanderer will ever find. Trying many different kinds of art is pleasurable, but mastering your favorite form of art is even more wonderful. The same can be said about nearly all other realms of human experience.

Our experience of life will be much richer when we adopt a childlike attitude of delight in doing the same wonderful things again and again. "Do it again" is the ultimate cry of delight in a person, thing or experience! How much happier we would be if we chose to exult in monotony and if every single day were lived as an encore to the previous one! And that is why I read Orthodoxy every year. It is one of those supreme delights in my life. Not once have I been disappointed by reading it; instead, every time I read it I am mesmerized again and filled with a greater appreciation of the whole of life!


  1. I enjoy repetition very much! I really did love that part of Orthodoxy, and I quote it quite a bit. Snowglobes are some of my favorite things in the world, and their main advantage is the fun of repetition. Listening to the music box song again and again, making it "snow" every time you hold it upsidedown. I quite simply never tire of it!

  2. Orthodoxy is one of my top 5. It's great. I blogged through it several years back. I think re-reading such a book regularly is a wise practice.

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