The Destructive Seduction of Pattern Recognition
Human beings are designed to notice patterns. And not just notice them, be attracted to them. Patterns tell us when certain foods will be available. Where certain animals are available to hunt. Where it’s safe to live. When it’s safe to sleep.
Patterns make our lives predictable and firm. And a predictable life is a safe life.
The safety of predictability. So much seduction in just four words.
It is this lust for predictability and this intoxicating attraction to patterns that makes breaking negative patterns in our lives so fucking hard. The logic goes a little something like this:
I know where this path leads. I know it’s hard and I know it makes me miserable and I know the view at the end isn’t what I hoped it would be. But I know it. There might be a better path. There might even be a safer path. But I know this path, so I know it’s safe… and if not safe, its dangers are not insurmountable.
^^^^ Stupid little caveperson brain, right there. ^^^^
I have patterns. Bunches of them, actually. Some of them are pretty fucking cool. I like them. I don’t plan on changing them.
If watching Groundhog Day whenever I have a cold so bad I can’t get off the couch is wrong, well, then I just don’t want to be right.
But there are other patterns that don’t make me happy. And they’re much subtler. What makes these particular paths I repeatedly travel challenging is that the trailhead looks different every time. And it’s not until I’m halfway up the mountain that I finally realize, “Ah, fuck. I hate this path.”
So, having completed my most recent journey up one of these said paths and getting completely turned around and almost hopelessly lost on the way back, I was feeling pretty confident that there would be no next time. This journey was the last one. I put a marker at the trailhead that clearly said, “You hate this path, you big dumb cavewoman. Stop fucking following it, will you?”
And with that, I dusted off my hands and walked away with a spring in my step. No more. Not again. I have learned my lesson. I’m going to find me a new path. I quickly stumbled upon a nice little easy climb. I’d thought about going this way before, but never really pursued it and I thought that perhaps there was a reason I found it again so soon after my blind stumbling through the wilderness of my most recent existential crisis.
“This direction looks new enough,” I thought. “Let’s go this way.”
If you’re a student of human nature, you can guess where that new path started to circle back around to. At first it was subtle, like looking through the trees and seeing a slight clearing in the distance running parallel to your footsteps.
“Huh,” I thought. “There’s another path over there. That’s not my old path, is it? Nah.”
But then I saw it. That first great big boulder that lives smack dab in the middle of my favorite old path and I was heading right for it. It actually blocks the fucking trail, this boulder. Like you have to climb over it or surreptitiously circle around it to get to where you want the path to go. Like it is hard, y’all.
How do I know this?
Because I have circumnavigated that damn boulder dozens of times since my 16th birthday. And every single time, I tell myself that this time will be different and it never is.
Until this last time.
So, this last time, I see this boulder and I think, I can handle this sucker. I’m very familiar with how to handle this sucker, in fact. But I don’t.
Pattern recognition’s seductive hold doesn’t take over this time. This time a big red neon sign descended from the heavens that read:
“Dude. What the fuck do you think you’re doing?”
It’s hard to walk away from familiarity. Especially when there’s something about it that you really love. But at a certain point, nothing can be as scary as revisiting the pain that familiar, but very unhealthy patterns can achieve.
I’m not going to lie to you and say that this new path I’ve chosen is easier. It’s not. There’s a lot of underbrush and fog and I have no idea where I’m going. But I do know that it’s not up that same path.
It’s a different path.
And just like at the end of Groundhog Day? Anything different is good.