“Wind’s in the east, mist coming in.
Like somethin’ is brewin’ and ’bout to begin.
Can’t put me finger on what lies in store,
But I fear what’s to happen all happened before.”
The words, delivered in the horrid faux-cockney accent of Dick Van Dyke, are only an interlude in the opening song of the classic children’s movie, “Mary Poppins”, but they prove to be prelude to a morality play which is the undercurrent of the story. Indeed, the events (leaving out the incredible exploits of the title character) are common in every era of history; a husband and wife too busy for each other and growing apart, with no time for their children who keep misbehaving to gain their attention. In short, history is repeated.
But, does history really repeat itself? Are we indeed doomed to take paths which have been traversed before? I want to answer with an emphatic, “No!” I don’t think I can do that honestly. We seem to be locked in an eternal time/space continuum, living lives and performing actions which mimic those already undertaken in the past, either by ourselves or previous generations. Don’t believe it? Check your friends’ comments; listen to them as they age. “I opened my mouth the other day and my mother came out!” alleged one middle-aged friend of mine just a couple of days ago. Read the ongoing arguments in child-behavior articles of nature versus nurture. They’re all talking about the same thing–history repeating itself.
Deja vu. It’s another French word which has made its way into our everyday usage. It means simply, “already seen”. We use it to describe the feeling that an event we are experiencing has happened before. You’ve had it occur, haven’t you? You walk into a room and, looking at the people and listening to the conversations, think, “I’ve been here before.” You haven’t really, but certain things just trigger the memories in your head.
I experienced this deja vu strongly, on an occasion some years ago. The Lovely Lady and I had been married a short time and we took a business trip to St Louis, Missouri one very hot July. One of the events we were to attend was a concert introducing new Christian artists. As we waited for the doors to open on the opera house where the concert would take place later in the day, I felt the need to find a restroom. The doors were locked! What to do? Glancing around and across the parking lot, I saw the big bus station nearby and headed over. As I walked in the entrance off the street, I took a look around and was hit with the strongest feeling of having already been here and done this. I knew, without seeing any sign, where the facilities were and headed down the stairs to my right. As I descended, I racked my brain. How would I have the slightest memory of this place? Surely, I had never been here before! Then, climbing back up the stairs, I looked across to the doors leading out to the bus garage, and a vivid memory took form.
In my mind’s eye, I saw a group of teen-aged boys and girls, standing and sitting with pillows and transistor radios, waiting for their huge chartered Continental Trailways bus to be cleaned in the middle of another hot July night. The bus was parked in that very garage. As they stood, there came a scream from the garage and a gray-haired African-American woman charged out the open door of the bus. One of the boys in the group (not me. I promise you!) began to chuckle and, under pressure, admitted that, coiled up on his seat in the bus, he had left a rubber snake which the unfortunate cleaning lady had, undoubtedly, come upon unawares.
The vision faded. I stood again, an adult, in the same place where I had stood with that youth group from South Texas years before as we had headed to a conference in Wisconsin. I tell you, I had never expected to enter the St Louis bus terminal again. Even if you had asked me, I would have averred that I would never do so. Yet, from my home in northwest Arkansas, I had made my way here to the city and into that bus station, though I didn’t want to go there at all.
I find that there is repetition in all of life. There are tasks we complete again and again. There are things we do again after years of not doing them. Even in the bigger context of human history, it is true. The names are different, the trappings have changed, but the interactions continue.
It all seems a bit futile, doesn’t it? If we are doomed to repeat history, why should we think about changing or worry about maturing? But, I believe that the fact that we do so often repeat history is actually a good thing. I have told you before that I am grateful for second chances. You see, the second chances aren’t just intended to be a reprieve from the penalties incurred by our bad decisions the first time around; they are for getting it right the next time we find ourselves in that situation. Grace extended isn’t intended to be a free pass to misbehave a second time. It assumes that we will be careful to avoid the mistakes of the original run-through.
A group of men met at my church last night. I handed each of them a piece of music and, after a few introductory notes from a piano, we began to sing. It was awful! We didn’t know the melody. When we split off into parts, the tenors were off on their notes. I heard a few guys come in when no one should have been singing. The basses and baritones were wandering around in one section without a clue to the intervals they should have been hitting. In short, a disaster! It’s a good thing no one was listening to us. We would have been taken off the schedule for Easter morning immediately! But, that’s not the end of the story.
We ran through the song three more times, stopping to work on notes, having the men on the individual parts listen as the pretty red-headed pianist played through their trouble-spots. When we did our last run-through before disbanding for the night, it was not perfect. It was certainly not ready to perform. But, no one would have covered their ears and run for the exits, so we had made progress!
In a few days, we’ll meet again. I wonder, do you think that it will sound just the same as the first run last night? “What a stupid question!” you may suggest. And, you would be correct. But, that is exactly what many of us do with the opportunities we have to improve upon our last attempt at whatever activity we are replaying. Again and again, we make the same errors, never deviating, never improving.
Yes, history repeats itself. It is up to us to make sure that we change the result on our second, or third, or fifteenth attempts. To continue doing the same thing is not only stupid, it is crazy. In fact, the popular definition of insanity is just that; doing the same thing over and over while expecting a different result.
Sometimes, we end up in the same places we have been before through no fault of our own. Taking different paths (as I did to the St Louis bus terminal), we arrive at the same point, nevertheless. These chance arrivals are interesting but not earth-shattering. The repeat visits which devastate are the ones which come with regularity and which have the identical negative response, no matter how many times we pass by. We have to determine to make changes, to have our mind set on better things.
We would think him an incompetent musician, who returns to rehearsal, only to repeat the mistakes he made the first time he saw the music. We say that “practice make perfect”, yet we belie the truth of that adage when we make no effort to improve the results in our own lives. The sins of the fathers don’t have to be repeated in their children, but it takes considerable effort to effect change.
So…how about it? Are you ready to get to work? We’ve been practicing for a good long while. We haven’t yet reached the end of the practice session. Maybe, the next run through, we can begin to hear some beautiful music.
Time will tell…
“My brothers, count it all joy when you fall into divers temptations; knowing this, that the trying of your faith works patience. But, let patience have her perfect work, that you may be perfect and entire, wanting nothing.”
“What has been will be again,
what has been done will be done again;
there is nothing new under the sun.”
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© Paul Phillips. He’s Taken Leave. 2013. All Rights Reserved.