I am always humbled when I come across an old journal of mine and read my former epiphanies. Humbled because I cannot believe that whatever new insight I have just had about myself or about the human condition—now, at fifty-three—is in fact not new at all. I knew it—apparently—at eighteen. And then again at, say, twenty-three. Then a bolt of lightning hit in my thirties and I re-arrived at the mind-blowing insight I did not remember having had before. Et cetera.
In fact, even this very insight, about how iterative (read: repetitive?) insight can be, is not new for me. At nineteen, my college roommate (who also happened to be named Hilary, with One L, earning us the nickname of: The Hilarai) and I coined our motto: Live Learn, and Repeat. Apparently, at our tender age, we already found our epiphanies redundant, as we circled the same themes and insights, made the same or similar mistakes, and learned from them anew.
Some generous, compassionate people refer to this syndrome as peeling the onion, providing the image of circling closer and closer to the center with each round. I love that image, and think it’s how we roll as humans.
I have come to believe that we each have certain themes, maybe one or two big whoppers for our lifetime, which thread through most (or all) of our crucial experiences. Your life theme might show up in the form of being over-extended, of putting everyone on your list before yourself—and the repeated learning you circle is about self-care, learning to prioritize yourself. Or your core life theme may be about belonging, and perhaps you experience situation after situation where you feel alienated, looking to others to include you or exclude you as a measure of your worth—and your learning comes in the form of realizing that you do matter, just as you are, that you already belong. Your theme might be about the ego, driving you to prove yourself over and over again—and your continued learning may be about shifting from doing into being, and learning to view yourself as Enough whether you are accomplishing something or not. These are some of the popular themes I see in my work as a life coach, but you may have an entirely different theme not mentioned here. My sense is that our themes inter-relate, overlap. We are not islands, experiencing wildly unique life themes; as different as we may be or seem or look or feel on the outside, we are all humans experiencing the human condition, and in that sense have a lot in common on the inside.
An insight does not have to be new to feel like it is—to provide fresh inspiration, motivation, awareness, grist. And along with this comes the invitation to forgive ourselves for making what feel like the same mistakes again and again, or falling into the same bad habits, the same pain, which may feel like the same rut. Doing this does not necessarily mean we are getting nowhere. We may just be peeling the onion. Gaining new awareness as we circle closer and closer to center.