One of the most overused axioms in modern popular culture is “the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over yet expecting different results”. We often use this when we are exasperated our imagined outcomes have not come to pass, yet we keep trying to make them so.
I heard someone say this axiom recently (I often say it myself) and it kind of hit me that the very same definition could be used to describe perseverance. We laud the idea of pushing through, staying the course, soldiering on when we are talking about perseverance but we criticize it as insanity in other contexts. Why? What is the difference?
Progress and Regress
Perhaps one of the main differences between the two is the difference between progress and regress.
When we are talking about perseverance, we are talking about at least some modicum of hope or forward momentum. In these instances, you quit only because of the effort required to move forward, not because the endeavor is worthless or impossible.
On the other hand, when we talk about insanity in this way, it seems as though we are talking about trying to continue even when there are clear signs of impossibility. And, perhaps more illuminating, continuing to do something bad over and over again is not just about running in place, it is actually about going backwards.
This is the second law of thermodynamics: entropy, unless treated, always increases. Think about a dirty room. The room is always getting dirtier. There is no such thing as the room staying at a frozen status quo. Dust and other particles are always making the room dirtier. Unless it is being cleaned.
The same is true for us as humans. There is no real neutral. We are either getting better or getting worse. And perhaps the heart behind using this definition of insanity is to point out that we are actually regressing instead of progressing.
The challenge, then, is our innate difficulty in discerning whether we are progressing or regressing. They are not so easy to tell apart, especially when things are tough (precisely when persevering is most needed).
An honest assessment can help bring clarity – is this endeavor costing me something but still propelling me forward? Or is it moving me backward and I am trying to push against reality by continuing to press forward? This latter case, ironically and tragically, often makes your backward (or regressive) momentum even greater.
Process and Outcome
Another important difference between continuing on in perseverance versus continuing on in “insanity” is the difference between focusing on outcomes and processes.
This might be the key distinction. Because the “insanity” definition is about continuing to do (or think or perceive) one thing while expecting a different result. A lot of “insanity”, as we are using the idea here, is about focusing on results. On outcomes. It should work out this way or that way. It doesn’t make sense to us. Why aren’t the outcomes turning out the way they should be?! This can be a dangerous obsession, a slippery slope.
Perseverance, the Bible says, develops character. It is about process. It is about stewarding with courage, hope, and truth. Pressing forward, no matter what obstacles (what outcomes) we may encounter. Perseverance, in the end, is about who you are not what happens to you. And that is a vital distinction.
If doing the same thing over and over again” is a reference to consistent character, we are talking about a definition of perseverance. If “doing the same thing over and over again” is about trying to manipulate outcomes, fighting against the fabric of true consequences, then we are talking about a definition of insanity.
We tend to observe the distinction much more clearly in others than in ourselves. We are masters of self-deception. We can easily tell ourselves we are persevering when we are trying to control others and circumstances. We can easily tell ourselves it is crazy to continue dealing with an obstacle because it is painful and uncomfortable, forgetting conveniently the vision in front of us and the character we are meant to steward. A more careful analysis is often needed. And it is an analysis we need to perform on ourselves.