Our Town: Repetition dooms many to relive their mistakes

Dr Tom Ferraro

Have you noticed that your life has a way of repeating itself? Freud called this the Repetition Compulsion and there are a few films that demonstrate this dynamic in a dramatic fashion. Let’s take a peek at each film that deals with the famed Repetition Compulsion.

The first is that wonderful German film “Run Lola Run” made in 1998 and starring the red- headed Franka Potente in her desperate quest to obtain 100,000 deutsche marks within 20 minutes. The film is unique and considered experimental because it repeats Lola’s 20- minute quest three times with alternative endings. In the first version she dies, in the second version the boyfriend dies, but in the third they both survive and manage to overcome and resolve the problem. This film is intended to demonstrate Chaos Theory and the Butterfly Effect, but it suits our purpose grandly.

The next film that deals with people forced to repeat a task was the 2011 film “Source Code” starring Jake Gyllenhaal. In this science fiction action thriller, Jake Gyllenhaal played a U.S. Army captain sent into an 8-minute digital recreation of a real life train explosion in order to discover the identity of the responsible terrorist.

The third film was the 2014 blockbuster “Live Die Repeat: Edge of Tomorrow” starring Tom Cruise and Emily Blunt. This futuristic science fiction tale takes place in Europe, which has been occupied by aliens. Cruise plays a public relations officer with no combat experience who is forced to join a landing operation against the aliens and finds himself in a time loop trying to find a way to combat the invaders. This film made nearly $400 million in its first release, suggesting the theme of the film hit a major cord with the audience.

Freud and many other analysts, me included, have observed the neurotic pattern of repeating mistakes over and over. Examples include athletes who refuse to win or patients who remarry the same person after the first divorce. Many analysts have suggested that the initial problem lies in childhood and this problem becomes buried and entrenched within the unconscious and is repeated over and over since the person knows no other way to function. Freud thought that the patient is trying to master the initial problem and thus puts oneself back in the turmoil in order to finally master it.

You can see in these three films how that pattern seems plausible, where the hero is thrust back over and over again into the same harrowing situation in order to resolve it. Lola finally solves the money problem but only after she dies the first time. In “Source Code” the Army captain finally discovers the terrorist’s identity but only after he gets blown up numerous times himself. And Tom Cruise does finally solve the problem of the alien invasion, but he dies many times before that happens.

There are conflicting theories as to why the repetition compulsion is so tough to overcome. The disturbed self-image that comes from childhood does tend to get reinforced and the low image forecloses other options since to grow takes strength and courage, while guidance and support are hard to come by.

You can see repetition compulsions in sports all the time. It’s hard for the Mets not to be the Mets just like it’s hard for the Yankees not to be the Yankees.

Or to bring this issue into the social realm, it’s hard for someone from the middle class to move into the upper class and just as hard for someone from the upper class to move into the middle class. These things are self-perpetuating beliefs.

One brilliant theorist who does provide some help in the area of leaving the past behind and growing beyond one’s troubles is Carl Jung. He was one of the founding fathers of psychoanalysis and was the first to talk about the importance of birth order on personality and the collective unconscious. One of his concepts was liminal space or that threshold one must cross to get to a higher level.

The idea of growth to the next level is every athlete’s dream and the quest to move up is every American’s dream as well. Who doesn’t want to move up the social hierarchy, gain greater respect and make more money? This used to be referred to as “keeping up with the Joneses,” but that trivializes the importance and healthy side of this quest.

To get past the threshold and gain entrance into the next level is remarkably tough. As Dante once said, the gateway to heaven means you first must enter hell.

Jung suggested that in order to move through liminal space you need to become an initiate, remove yourself from the fray and receive support and guidance. This is what occurs as kids go off the college. It’s also what Thoreau did 170 years ago when he found sanctuary at Walden Pond. But in his case his mentors were the star, geese and woodchucks. So where exactly do adults go to become an initiate, feel cloistered and receive enough support and guidance to grow?

Many sociologists and social critics have pointed out that our society has a dearth of ritual space which would facilitate growth. And as community life becomes ever more embattled, these liminal spaces are shrinking by the minute. Sanctuary is not to be found. And this is why the dreaded repetition compulsions or the endless repeating of last year’s mistakes yet again will go on and on.

Good for me because I’m the guy people visit to pick up the pieces and try to shed light upon the dreaded past. But a failure to have a society which provides supportive, cloistered growth-inducing environments is a very big problem that no one seems to be talking about and therefore as adults we are left to fend for ourselves, saddled with an apparent learning disability of the gravest order.


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