From the moment of my birth,
To the instant of my death,
There are patterns I must follow,
Just as I must breathe each breath.
Like a rat in a maze,
The path before me lies,
And the pattern never alters,
Until the rat dies.
— Paul Simon, Patterns
The tread marks of my stupidity, my pattern, are visible on a street near my home. Those events are so common, I’ve even turned them into an equation – I + I = S. Impatience plus impulsivity equals stupid.
In the latest incident, the skid marks were laid down on a pleasant, sunny day. I had just finished a cool-off drip in Okanagan Lake after a hot workout at the gym.
I was chill, and a little chilled, while driving the two kilometres home when I saw a pick-up with its left blinker on.
As I got closer, the blinker kept blinking, the truck moving glacially along.
It was still blinking when I accelerated pass and absently noted the driver’s arm waving as if to say, WTF.
Maybe that was why I didn’t immediately notice the tractor turning left in front of the truck.
Fortunately, my brain turned off as my body took over.
The brake pedal hit the floor as tires screeched 20 metres along the pavement; the steering wheel was yanked left so that if the car hit the tractor, it would be sideways.
But the Universe, the Lady and her armada of angels, was ready. The Lady expects stupid things from me; she has been watching me do them for 68 of my 72 years; OK, 69.
The tractor driver, who was older, and probably a lot smarter, cranked his steering wheel to the right while the pickup driver hit the brakes, leaving tread marks in stereo.
If I were bigger, psychologically not physically, I would have stopped, apologized and suffered the wrath of both drivers.
Instead, stoical and still quite chill, I waved and drove on. Just another stupid event in the life of Ross.
The remorse set in later. In spite of my efforts to be more mature, I am, to paraphrase the Eagles, still the same old boy
I used to be.
Eric Butterworth, a former Unity minister in New York City and prolific author, wrote that people don’t change, they just change the way they see themselves.
The writers of the first John Wick movie appear to agree.
“People don’t change,” Viggo, the bad guy, tells a tussled and tied-up John Wick. “Times, they do.
“You’re still very much the John Wick of old. You’re lying to yourself that the past had no sway over the future. This life fills you, clings to you.”
The vengeful John Wick was guided and controlled by patterns laid down in his past.
My patterns don’t involve killing people, but I am governed by old ones, by impatience and impulsivity, which often lead to stupid things. Thus, the equation I + I = S.
Its effect on my world has been as far-reaching as Einstein’s equation, E = MC squared, has on the larger world – mine in a negative way and his, positive.
Impulsivity and poor judgment are hallmarks of bi-polar (I was diagnosed with the mildest form). Like the tread marks on my street, my poor judgment is also in stereo – it’s a side effect or consequence of a childhood brain leaping, falling and hitting a big rock.
The lesson in all this?
Of course, there is a lesson I want to share; otherwise it would just be another dumb action of a guy attempting to escape his patterns.
The lesson is Wait! (I’ll toss in look and listen for free.)
I know, I know. You expected more, something profound, something insightful and all I have is fortune-cookie wisdom.
Wait is not even the world’s favourite four-letter word, but imagine how our lives, and those around us, would be better if it were. If all of us, not just the impatient and impulsive, used it as much as we use the other four letters.
The world and its best teachers have been preaching that wait philosophy since our ancestors fell out of the trees in Africa.
“Do you have the patience to wait until your mud settles and the water is clear?” Lao Tzu wrote in the Tao Te Ching.
That’s my work: to wait, to slow the hammering drumbeat that compels me to hurry when logic says wait.
I’m working on it.
Every time I get in my car, I say wait.
When I come to a stop sign, wait.
When I am fuming at a roundabout or a merge lane, and the people ahead think it’s a stop sign, I remind myself to wait. And, of course, in the line-up at Tim Horton’s with the slow, but friendly, service.
As my impatience and impulsivity rise from my tightening stomach and chest, I watch it and say, wait. And loosen my jaw.
It’s akin to training a puppy, which is done with care, attention and patience. Full disclosure here: I’m a cat guy, which might explain the impatience and my inability to learn, and why the patterns repeat.
Jungian analyst James Hollis has written books about these repeating patterns, which Freud called the repetition compulsion.
“Only when we recognize this reflexive claim upon us from the past can we access the resolve to break though into the growth the soul is asking of us,” Hollis wrote in The Broken Mirror: Refracted Visions of Ourselves.
“Start with your patterns, especially those you find troubling, perhaps self-defeating, injurious to self as others. We do not do crazy things; we always act logically if we understand the intrapsychic premise or ‘idea’ that has been activated.”
Hollis said we don’t look in the mirror every morning and tell ourselves we’re going to make the same stupid mistakes today that we did yesterday, the day before and the day before that…
I don’t know about you, but that seems to be my pattern; I don’t tell myself I will make the same mistakes, but I do, unless I can stop the pattern before it possesses me.
In the final verse of the song, Patterns, Paul Simon sings:
And the pattern still remains,
On the wall where darkness fell,
And it’s fitting that it should,
For in darkness I must dwell.
Like the colour of my skin,
Or the day that I grow old,
My life is made of patterns,
That can scarcely be controlled.
The important word is scarcely, which offers a sliver of hope in the darkness. While patterns can’t be undone or erased, they can be controlled – if we have the patience and discipline to figure out what they are and interrupt them before they cause us, well, me, to do stupid things.
“The reading of our life patterns tells us much about the formative stories to which our lives have been in service, brings them to consciousness and proves an opportunity for larger, better stories to enhance our journey,” Hollis wrote in Living Between Worlds.
In other words, know thyself. Socrates told us that 2,300 years ago.
It was also inscribed near the entrance of the temple of Apollo at Delphi where the oracle had been dispensing cryptic wisdom for hundreds of years before she set the father of moral philosophy on his path.
It’s a path former U.S. first lady Michelle Obama walks. “I tell my mentees, I tell my daughters that our first job in life as women, I think, is to get to know ourselves,” she told Oprah Winfrey. “I know who I am.”
“Knowing who you are is the journey,” Winfrey agreed.
It is equally true for men, for everyone.
In order to grow, to learn, we must become scientists of the self (SOS), astronomers predicting the unknown from the known, finding unseen planets from their effect on the objects around them.
Someone is reputed to have asked Socrates how to get to Delphi.
“Let every step you take be in that direction,” was his reply.
Let every step we take be in the direction of finding out who we are, and the first step might be knowing our patterns, and the triggers that fire them.
If nothing else, it might prevent us from writing our signature in rubber on a city street.
Ross Freake is a former managing editor with The Daily Courier.