The Law of Repetition
People are usually surprised to learn that I love training dogs. It happened rather by accident, after adopting a one year old mini labradoodle that was (and unfortunately still is) hopelessly anxious. We worked really hard together for a few months and made a lot of progress, both with basic obedience and also some problem behaviors. One of the commands he learned was “kennel up” – whenever we leave we say “kennel up,” and off he goes into his kennel, without fuss or complaint. Over time he has learned what activities signal our departure: putting on shoes and jackets, the whole family up walking around, one final potty time. Sometimes those activities happen when we aren’t leaving, and we look around for him, calling “Toto!” He is already in his kennel, and it seems he gets really convinced we aren’t leaving because we have to insistently and enthusiastically call for him to come out.
Believing that dogs are den animals who naturally prefer enclosed spaces, this behavior doesn’t worry me much. I do wonder if he is just being obedient, or perhaps finds our leaving an anxious experience, and so his kennel provides some safety. Either way, I probably didn’t need to actually “train” him to go into his kennel on command. The sheer repetition of going in his kennel every time we leave, at least once if not multiple times per day (not for the whole day, mind you) over months and years, would have naturally engrained the behavior in his mind and body. Repetition encodes memory. That is a neutral, scientific fact of creaturely existence, whether in humans or animals.
As a neutral fact, it can be harnessed for good, and also for evil. If the repeated act of being enclosed in his kennel was coupled with an explicitly negative experience, fireworks perhaps, or loud argumentative yelling, by association the kennel itself would provoke fear, a memory of harm. On the positive side, putting on my running shoes could – if I were more consistent – become a signal of going for a walk. Not the first time, of course; only after many repetitions. And it might be an annoyance to me, if in his mind sneakers equals play and he bounces all over the place, tail twirling like a helicopter, when in reality I have to go mow the lawn (in which case sneakers, for me, equals suffering in the Southern humidity).
The point is, the things we say, think and do repeatedly over time, as well as what others say and do with and to us, are significant. They end up signifying, whether any intent is there or not. And those repetitions can be more dangerous the more unintentional they are, because they embed outside of our awareness.
My mom had some go to sayings that, unfortunately, were typically indicative of a negative mood. “Lord, give me patience,” she would growl when my older brother and I were getting on her nerves, typically because we didn’t do something she asked, or not to the standard she expected without asking. To this day, I have a very difficult time praying with others. There are many reasons for this, not all of them related to my family, but certainly one factor is that prayer became repetitively associated with anger and shame. My mom never intended to teach me that adults only pray when they are mad at their children, but that is nevertheless what I repeatedly experienced.
Repetitions form patterns, but because they become habitual we don’t think as much about them. Much of what counseling is about is welcoming an outside perspective to help to detect those undetectable patterns, whether personal, relational, familial or cultural. Once detected, they can then be inspected and evaluated. Although it can be overvalued, “Why do I do the things I do?” is a powerful question. An equally powerful question is, “What is the impact of this repetitive habit?” Perhaps my mom would have refrained from vocal, angry prayer if the impact was known. Likewise, perhaps I would be more intentional to engage vocal prayer with my own family if I perceive the impact of not praying with them (if repeated over time).
In either case, pay attention to patterns. Being willing to spot repetitions in your life and pose the difficult questions of cause and effect (which of course can be reciprocal and multifaceted) is a powerful attribute, able to generate the repetition of compound interest: more awareness, more growth; more growth, more awareness, until finally we see “face to face” and “know fully, even as [we] have been fully known” (1 Corinthians 13:12).