Life on Endless Repeat

I recently heard about a thought experiment that was useful to me, so I thought I’d share it. This is not a new idea– it was first put forward for Friedrich Neitzche. For those of you better philosophically versed than I am, you may already be familiar with it.

Here’s the idea: Suppose that, for the rest of eternity, you would live your life on repeat. Every part of your life– the good and the bad– beginning to end. Both the broad strokes of your life, but equally important, the small details, would all be on repeat: the day to day anxieties, the little annoyances, the small triumphs, the minor pleasures.The way you wake up in the morning, the way you feel brushing your teeth, the things you think about driving around town, the experience you have chewing your food– all of these are replayed. Imagine that you would not be able to change a thing; everything that happens in your life, down to the tiniest detail, would be on repeat, second-to-second, minute-to-minute, hour-to-hour, forever.

Does this idea fill you with horror? Apprehension? Or does it feel affirming? Welcome?

If every action, every thought, every feeling, everything we do,say, feel, or think is not a one-time event, but an infinitely repeating loop, would you do what you do now, or would you do things differently?

I find this construct useful because it forces us to look at the daily lived experience of life, rather than the broad sweep of summaries and accomplishments. The frame moves us away from our highlight (or lowlight) reel, and puts a sharp focus on the moment-to-moment experience of being alive. If we had to live, eternally and on repeat, a life where we accomplish big things but are miserable most of the time, would you sign up for that? Would that be an exciting prospect?

I also found this thought experiment a clarifying lens through which to think about the daily stresses of life. In the moment, the little anxieties and preoccupations that take so much of our time seem important. The stakes feel high. However, if we had to relive a given day 10,000 times, does our thinking about those stresses change? If we are upset about the dishes being left in the sink– fair enough. It’s annoying. But suppose instead that feeling of being upset about that once, that is something that we would have to experience again, and again, and again. Is it still worth it? How might we do things differently? For me, it helps me let go of things more easily, so that the amount of time I spend on it is less.

This thought experiment forces us to evaluate life from the present, rather than retrospectively. After all, our entire life is lived in the present moment. The benefit of hindsight is that we know how it all works out. It’s much easier to see our brilliance and our folly, our courage and our foibles, when looking back. Recognizing our preoccupations about things that never came to pass is easy when we know that the things we were worried about never materialized– be we only gain that clarity with hindsight.

If we think about the idea of repeating life endlessly, based on where we are right now, an obvious question emerges: what changes would we make now, so that the next 10 years of life we’d be happy to repeat endlessly? If we think about today as an inflection point, what would need to be different so that we’d be excited if the rest of life were on endless repeat? What would need to stay the same?

Thinking about our actions repeating endlessly helps us focus on the significance of every moment we are alive. If we imagine that we will relive every moment over and over and over again, every moment becomes important, precious, and worth paying attention to.

This thought experiment is in the same genre as exercises where we imagine looking back on our life from the perspective of old age, imagine writing our own obituary, or imagining where we want to be in the future, and then work backwards. While there’s value in those types of reflection, I like this one better. Imagining looking back on life from the end generally gives short shrift to the journey and the day-to-day experience, placing a larger emphasis on the outcome, and less emphasis on the lived journey. While thinking about the end can be helpful, sacrificing the present to achieve a distant goal is often a path to unhappiness. This exercise offers a more holistic view– encompassing both the minute-to-minute experience and the overall sweep of things.

If life repeated endlessly, what would you do differently, and what would you do the same?


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