Posted October 27, 2009
The Joy of the Groove
By Ron Rolheiser
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
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
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.