One aphoristic definition of madness is repeating a behavior that has previously led to disappointing results over and over again, expecting a different outcome each time. Freud coined the concept of “repetition compulsion” around this notion. But I’m a post-Freudian optimist — I believe that we repeat our perilous patterns not out of blind compulsion but because this is how we evolve. This, after all, is how evolution works in a scientific sense — repetition is its primary driving force. Organisms only ever change by countless iterations, making subtle and imperceptible self-transformations with each turn of the reproductive cycle — adaptive changes in the service of their optimal survival, iterative intimations of continual betterment whispered into the ear of time until the organism emerges as an entirely new creature.
Since our biology and our psychology are so symbiotically entwined, this too must be how our consciousness evolves and how any meaningful change comes about. The history of innovation offers plenty of testaments — most of the people we celebrate as geniuses, whose breakthroughs forever changed our understanding of the world and our experience of life, labored under David Foster Wallace’s definition of true heroism — “minutes, hours, weeks, year upon year of the quiet, precise, judicious exercise of probity and care — with no one there to see or cheer.” Marie Curie toiled in her lab until excessive exposure to radiation begot the finitude of her flesh, wholly unprotected by her two Nobel Prizes. Trailblazing astronomer Maria Mitchell made herself “ill with fatigue” as she peered into the cosmos with her two-inch telescope well into the night, night after night. Thomas Edison tried material after material while looking for a stable filament for the first incandescent bulb, proclaiming: “I have not failed. I’ve just found ten thousand ways that won’t work.” And then there was light.