Every so often I encounter someone who’s stuck on a story or viewpoint. The phenomenon is called 1perseveration, and we might mark this behavior as slightly problematic in most social settings. The tendency to revisit the same matters unceasingly can be a sign of mild cognitive decline. (One verbal clue: “Have I ever told you about the time when….?”)
I’ve been around plenty of worry-prone perseverators, and heard many good-hearted older adult souls tell me the same story every time I visit them. So I understand that this can be irksome behavior—perhaps something to correct or disregard?
Another possibility occurs to me: That perseverating may serve a good purpose. My reasoning starts with appreciation for anyone whose memory or attention can remain focused over time. Another factor: That there may be some benefit in hearing or experiencing a tale or perspective more than once—and from the same person. (To put a biblical spin on this phenomenon, read any of the Old Testament prophets and see how frequently they repeat the same stories, themes, warnings and assurances.)
When I hear a story repeated for the umpteenth time, I realize that something significant may be embedded in that tale. That the teller wants to share something unforgettably important, helpful or entertaining. When I hear someone unwilling to let go of a bothersome phenomenon—e.g., people who disregard others’ needs—I realize that this could be a form of prophetic utterance. Here are people—often older adults—whose stance or story might just be instructive for my life.
The constant revisiting of a perspective or anecdote could be a gift from perseverators, something more than tiresome or irritating. Perseveration might just be one way by which God accentuates core narratives, attitudes or beliefs.
Perhaps we should 2preserve perseverators?
1 From the Old French perseveracion (“persistence or stubbornness”), eventually rooted in
the Latin perseverare (“to continue steadfastly or persist”). The current psychologically
framed use begins in the early 1900s, and refers to someone who repeats a response after the
the original stimulus has ceased. (E.g., Uncle Ned’s telling the same story over and over, or
Aunt Nelly’s constant fretting about the height of her neighbor’s lawn grass.)
2 Rooted in the Late Latin praeservare (“to guard beforehand” or “keep safe”).