Say again?

I have been accused of saying nothing new.

It happened awhile back with one of my essays, where someone commented that it was old news and was rather disappointed by it. It was a valid accusation: I wasn’t saying anything new, and I knew it. And I kinda felt like I was cheating, not saying anything “new”, per se, just rewriting what I already believed. But I thought, at the time, that it need saying again.

The human quest for novelty is not in itself a bad thing. I’d trace it back to childhood, when everything is new, and thus every experience, every piece of knowledge, everything that ever happens is an exciting event worthy of much jumping up and down and squealing. (Or was that just me?) In fact, I have this theory that when little kids blurt those awesome non-sequiturs that make looking after them inherently hilarious, it’s because something that is obvious to an adult has just now struck the kid. And hey, if you were a little short on impulse control, you’d be blurting it out too. Yesterday a mom told me how her three-year-old daughter had greeted a friend by saying, without preamble, “You match!” Because this friend’s clothes did, in fact, match. And when you’re three years old, and this is the first time you’ve ever realized that people wear their clothes to match, it’s a revelation.

But as we get older, such revelations get fewer and farther between. And if, like me, you read a lot and remember what you read, what other people say is a breakthrough may have you rolling your eyes because you remember it from five years ago. When I see someone who’s done some color-coordinating with their clothes, I might say “I like how that matches,” but I’m not going to be terribly surprised by the phenomenon.

Thus we seek out the new. We read new books, we watch new movies. We listen to new speakers that say things we haven’t thought of, who know things that we don’t. I’m a big fan of www.popsci.com because it’s full of reports on new technologies, new ideas, new sciences, and fascinating things that ten years ago would have been sci-fi fodder and are now, astoundingly, for sale. The hunger for the new is a driving force. It keeps me interested in choir (because my director digs up awesome new music) and philosophy and theology (because people are always coming up with new theories), and it even drives me to study old stuff: history and culture and religions and things, because they may not be new to the world, but they’re surely new to me.

Which makes it tempting that when old news comes round again, when things are said for the twelfth time, when someone rediscovers something you never forgot in the first place, you just shrug and say, “Yeah, I knew that,” and dismiss it.

Yeah, not so fast. I mean, like I said, some of the “new” stuff I study is actually quite old. And when the obvious is being said, when old news is dug up again, when something I’ve known for ages is front and center, it may be old to me, but it will be new to someone else. Or, even if it is old to me, that doesn’t mean I remember it. I may see something new about it. And sometimes I need to be smacked upside the head about it. Old news, newly applied.

People wearing matching clothes might not be news to anyone over the age of three, but some folks never get the hang of it, and might want another lesson.

For what is new? “Nothing new under the sun,” Solomon tells us. New technologies, new sciences, new knowledge of how the material world works, but human society has not changed much. You can put it in different words. You can uncover different facets. You can pull into the spotlight something that previous generations ignored, or assumed. But it is not new. The entirety of my faith is rooted in Scripture, and the New Testament has its seed in the Old. Human philosophy and thought has very, very old roots, and I think much of what we debate now could be debated with the ancients. Every rose is unique, but they are all roses.

Likewise, they are all roses, but every rose is unique. (Actually, I’d rather say “dandelion”, because there are a lot more of them, if underappreciated.)

Quantum mechanics tells us you can’t step into the same stream twice – you can’t even step into the same stream once because your footstep went and changed it. The world is constantly changing, constantly growing and decaying, shifting and moving. But I’d say it’s less a chaos than a fractal: infinite variations on a single theme. People who want to uncover the theme (or make their own variation), no matter how far they go, no matter how inventive they are, no matter how creatively they alter it, are, in the end, going to sound a bit familiar.

And that’s not bad. If a thing is true, it can be said again. What changes are the circumstances, the language or medium used. Sometimes, that’s all the change that’s needed.

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