Notwithstanding Einstein’s assertion that insanity is repeating the same thing over and over expecting a different result, and Emerson’s maxim that a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of small minds, repetition and consistency are the basis of stability in life.
Emerson used the adjective “foolish,” which gives a caveat to his famous phrase. But I’m truly surprised at Einstein for disparaging repetition. Einstein played the violin, an instrument he well knew requires practice, which is, by definition, repetition with the expectation—with most people, alas, only over a long period of time—of a different result, namely, that one eventually learns to play.
Of course, one can interpret Einstein’s dictum to mean that one must repeat with focus in order to turn up a better result. But that’s not how most people regard the concept.
We Need Consistency
Over the past century or so, consistency and repetition have taken on some negative connotation, associated with the mundane, the unexceptional, even the plodding and commonplace. Indeed, consistency and repetition are common, but not always commonplace. One is often exhorted to “think outside the box” and to “break out of the mold,” although consistency is the backbone of stability and repetition is something we need every moment.
Our hearts beat with consistent rhythm, and we are lucky for that. The sun rises and sets every day, and we must be able to count on that very fact. We sleep, rise, go to work, and eat at repetitive intervals and, unless we do so consistently, suffer or at least complain at the lack of “three squares a day” and a “place to lay our heads,” those basics of necessary consistency.
Repetitive consistency is a form of practice and, if I may offer yet another old cliché that holds a deep and incontrovertible truth, “practice makes perfect,” or at least that is its aim. To live a good life requires applying the principle of practice, not the foolish consistency of “going through the motions” in a zombie-like routine, but applying the focus of our energy to perfecting our skills at living.
Habits Make the Man
Everything we practice ingrains in us an easier ability to do what we have practiced. We set the alarm and rise each morning so we can engage in the routine we have set: showering, shaving, combing our hair, putting on clothing, traveling to work, and spending our day in labor. There may be exceptions to the routine, and there may be infinite numbers of different kinds of routines, but the concept of a routine itself is not a straightjacket. It is the cumulative set of disciplines that free us from having to figure out anew each thing we do daily to survive.
When we practice well, we develop good life skills and apply refined principles to our practice. In all, we begin to make good living a habit. This habit of good living should be the vital goal of everyone’s existence, no matter what conditions attend the circumstances of our birth or early upbringing, no matter what tragedy may befall us or good luck may drop in our laps.
We must always hold up to ourselves the ideal aim of living a good life: good in quality, good in habits, and good in spirit—whether that sense of spirit is religious, philosophic, or a product of our experience.
Aldous Huxley famously said experience is not what happens to a man but what a man does with what happens to him. Psychologist Nathaniel Branden asserted we are not so much products of our environment as products of our responses to it. Both these observations lead me to conclude that life takes practice, and the more we practice it the better we get at it.
Practice Slowly Yields Mastery
The tasks of life are repetitive, to be sure, but practice is not mere repetition. The diligent application of principle in forming one’s approach to that repetition yields mastery. The more diligently one lives, the better one gets at living. And the longer one lives a diligent life, the more one learns.
Through this diligent living, one tends to develop wisdom. For me, knowledge is greater than the sum of facts. It is the holistic equivalent of facts integrated to experience and, thus, understanding. Wisdom is greater than knowledge. It is knowledge born of experience.
So what are the things we must practice so consistently that will yield the techniques leading to a better life? They are simple, really, but too often overlooked: diligence, patience, honesty, courage, perseverance. The list can be as long and imaginative as one cares to make it.
They are the fundamentals of social conduct, but also of personal relations with oneself. They are the eternal verities commonly scoffed at in a world that has become cynical. Such “philosophic” values in real life may seem too simplistic. Yet without them very little can be accomplished.
Without diligence nothing can be learned, let alone mastered. Without patience one cannot take the time to accomplish what one is being diligent about. Without honesty, who can take part in the simplest transaction, whether personal or business? And without courage, how can one persevere against adversity, which surely affects every person in every lifetime? We all have to get up, go to work, and do the tasks that keep us not only alive, but content to be alive.
To Roman Catholics, there are two categories of sin: those of commission and of omission. Sometimes they are difficult to distinguish from one another. But the verities mentioned above help us avoid falling into either kind of sin. And we need to keep from falling if we are to live decent, respectable, and honorable lives. Indeed, they are vital if we are to live a life that is not depraved or wanting. They are fundamental to life itself, and their practice is deeply important through every moment of that life.