In a marvelous book, The Force of Character, James Hillman shares this story: As a young man, sitting around one afternoon and listening to an old uncle telling stories, he got irritated when his uncle began telling a story that he had told many times before: “You’ve already told that story,” Hillman complained. “I like telling it!” his uncle shot back, and then muttered under his breath, “and what on earth is wrong with telling it again!”
At the time, his uncle’s retort served only to further irritate Hillman. Only later, when his understanding of life and character deepened, did Hillman appreciate why his uncle had a need to tell and retell the same story: “He knew the joy of the groove!” And what a joy, what a gift, is the groove!
We don’t just nurture others and ourselves with freshness and novelty. These are perennially in short supply and generally not accessible. If we only talked with each other when we had something new or interesting to share there would be mostly silence around our tables. There would also be a lot less irony, humour, and wit in our conversations. We don’t just nurture each other through novelty and by being interesting, we also, and importantly, nurture family life, our friendship circles, and our workplaces by working and reworking to death old stories, old jokes, and old anecdotes, until that repetition becomes it own story, its own humour, and its own anecdote. Hillman names this brilliantly: He calls it the joy of the groove.
Hillman goes on to offer a rather serious philosophical reflection on this, one which sheds light on the value of ritual repetition. He quotes Gilles Deleuze, a French philosopher, who once pointed out that repetition can be a way of celebrating something by highlighting its character: By carrying the first time to the nth power, repetition artfully glorifies. Repetition magnifies an event by commemorating its originality; this repetition differs from reproduction, which succeeds only in making each repetition a weaker echo, a paler print, with less and less power of the original.
To this, Hellman adds a little doxology in praise of repetition: Nothing is more tedious than practicing your scales or mumbling your beads. Yet the accomplishments of art, the efficacy of prayer, the beauty of ritual, and the force of character depend on petty repetitions any instant of which, taken for itself alone, is utterly useless.
Many of us know exactly what this means. We have siblings, friends, and acquaintances that entertain and irritate us by mercilessly repeating old stories, old jokes, and old anecdotes over and over until this very repetition becomes its own story and takes on its own character. They work the groove. Sometimes this irritates us and we want to protest, but, as was the case with Hillman, eventually we come to appreciate what that brings into the circle of family life, friendship, and community, namely, a needed sustenance, a color, a wit, a character, and a peculiar idiosyncrasy that becomes a story onto itself. We don’t live on novelty alone, but on every retold story that highlights the irony and color within our daily lives.
My own family has been irritatingly famous for this, a quality that I am not always proud of but which generally I appreciate. We are a family that loves the joy of the groove. At our family gatherings and dinner tables, year after year, many of the same stories and jokes get told over and over again. And they aren’t always received with appreciation. Not infrequently there is a raised eyebrow (“My God, he’s not going to tell that one again!”) or, like the young Hillman, a raised complaint (“You’ve told that story before!”) But, overall, there is the enjoyment of the groove, of old irony, old wit, of an old insight being enjoyed again, in a fresh new way, both by the one retelling it and by those listening. At our table, what’s old and tedious nurtures and carries family life as much what’s new and interesting, sometimes more so because the retelling of old anecdotes and stories helps highlight our own particular history and character.
We lost a loved brother this summer and, at his vigil, his three children, now grown adults, offered a moving tribute. Among other things, they highlighted his solicitude for them as a father, his commitment to his church, his strong commitment to justice issues (ecology, native rights, women’s rights), and his sense of humor, particularly his need to repeat a punch-line over and over again, as if it somehow wasn’t heard the first time: “You couldn’t escape!”, they pointed out, “he repeated it over and over again until he was sure you got it!”
But that isn’t the real reason we repeat a punch-line. We repeat a punch-line for the same reason that Hillman’s uncle was driven to retell that same story: We like saying it! We like the feel of the groove. Moreover, eventually, beyond their initial irritation, so others do too.