When Mark and I first moved into our old neighborhood (where we were renting for the first year and a half we lived in Austin), one of the things we noticed was a man we named The Runner. The Jogger would likely have been more appropriate, but we called him The Runner. He ran in a circle around a two block radius, always wearing the same clothes, always with the same little radio and headset, always with the same pained expression. It seemed like he ran for about 10 hours a day, but I think it was more a matter of his schedule matching up with ours and we just happened to always seem him while he was running. He looked like he was hating every minute of it, he never went fast, and he never varied from his two-block course.
Mark and I made fun of him mercilessly, as we've been known to do with people who cross our paths on a daily basis but we don't actually know. He was not even our first Runner. We also had a Runner in Portland--a very thin woman who we saw running nearly every morning on our bus ride to work. In fact, it was probably nostalgia for our originally Runner, and for Portland, that caused us to notice our new Runner in the first place.
Several months after we'd moved in, and hundreds of jokes about him later, The Runner came up in conversation with our across the street neighbor, B., who had lived in the neighborhood with his wife for several years. Either Mark or I said something sarcastic about his boring course, or his predictability, or something. B. countered that he had enormous admiration for our Runner. What we hadn't been there long enough to see, he said, was that when The Runner had started out on his course, months and months before, his body had been about twice the size it now was. Everything else was the same--same shorts, shirt, shoes, radio and headset, pained expression. Same two block course. But then, he'd not been able to jog around the two blocks even once. Then, very slowly, day after painstaking day, he began to make progress. And he tried every day, and did as much as he could every day, and what we were seeing now, the seemingly hours-long jogs around and around the two blocks, were the product of that.
For some reason, I was very moved as B. told us this story. I imagined a much fatter version of our Runner, when his shorts and shoes and radio were brand new, being hit by some impetus and beginning his slow, grueling sludge around the block. I imagined him telling himself that each day he'd go a little bit farther, and then forcing himself to actually do it. I imagined the comfort he must draw from his routine, from lacing up his same shoes, strapping on his same radio, and running his same two block course. While holding all of these things constant, it must have been so easy for him to see the changes in his strength, his endurance, and his body and he slowly ran out of one season and into the next.
It's a pretty basic premise of experimentation that in order to be sure of the change in one factor, other factors must be held constant. I think this is one reason why we as human beings tend to be so attached to our routines, whether it's exercise routines like The Runner, or other kinds of routines or patterns of behavior. Within these routines, it is easier for us to see the things that are changing, whether they are changing outside of our control or because of it. It's not just that there is safety and comfort in routine, though there is, but also that within its confines we can clearly see the ways in which we are changing.