Sean O’Connor: The secret of life is learning to find the rhythm in the routine

We are all creatures of habit, and the more we slip into our habits, the more we run the risk of getting stuck in a rut. Here’s a story about the way a simple epiphany of change can set the wheels in motion for a new and smarter way of living your life.

By Sean O’Connor*

When my family split up, I had the good fortune to go and see a child psychologist I’d consulted before. I knew she would demonstrate professional compassion and insight. Not usually very good at asking for help, I have learnt to hold onto a safe pair of hands when I feel them.

I intended asking her about an appropriate child contact and care routine. She quickly corrected me: “Rhythm,” she said. “Not routine.” A child needs a familiar rhythm.

It made sense, an appropriate metaphor that related to the beating heart of his mother’s that he heard in the womb, and the sway of her walk while pregnant with him.

I needed to preserve and tend to my relationship with my son. Recently, my older son from another relationship is visiting me, and I also felt the need to connect. How do I do that? How do I be me, let him be who he is?

I learnt to let go, not expect much, and support his own rhythm – he wakes at around 2pm after going to bed at midnight. I’d come home from ‘work’ and after his shower and breakfast/lunch, we’d go for a walk together.

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It’s all very well to have a routine, something marked out in lines, yet a routine is rigid and breakable. In this context, and with the mother of my younger son, establishing a routine would mean endless negotiation and potential conflict.

A rhythm, instead of a routine, seems gentler, more compassionate, more in tune with a life to be lived with ups and downs, with intakes and exhalations of breath, with light and dark, good and bad together.

My friend described this to me, and it’s something I’ve only learnt recently: that there is nothing purely good or completely bad, but always a mix. Picture a spinning top – it has two halves, one black and one white, which turns grey when spinning. That’s life. It’s ok to have mixed feelings. I never knew this as a younger man.

The idea of creating a familiar rhythm of contact and care for my sons has refracted into my own life. How do I care for myself? My routine: wake up, stagger to the coffee machine, get back into bed with the laptop to read the online papers, then emerge, shower, eat two poached eggs with a grilled tomato, grab an apple or banana and head out the door, seemed to hold me captive.

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How could I make my life more rhythmic, and less routined? A creature of habit, some addictive, I felt like I was held hostage to my perceived needs. What is driving me? What is my purpose here?

These are questions I’m still grappling with. I write every day to my children, and my dog takes me for a walk into the upper reaches of the forest on Table Mountain, where I am happiest.

It is here that my best thinking occurs, in the clean mountain air beside gushing streams and bone-grey boulders covered with velvety lichen. It is the rhythm of my pounding heart and panting breath as I hurtle along the trails which activate different parts of me, mind, heart and soul, to work in harmony.

My stride is regular, the sound of my footsteps metronomic. My elder son was walking with me recently and observed with a beautiful smile that our steps were in perfect sync. It was a poignant observation that meant much more than he intended.

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Just to hear our feet striking the soil together was to be close to him, and feel clear and good about myself. No words needed to be spoken. I had made contact with my son.

I’d hit my rhythm. Quality time. Morning walks are an essential part of this. They don’t always happen or even happen at the same time, but they do always produce a beating heart that seems more tuned into the life I want to live.

I mentioned to the young man my son was becoming that he had also grown up here, in the forest, carried as a babe for years on my shoulders, gaping at the trees, sleeping, dreaming. He felt this connection too, as we walked through familiar landmarks between the trees.

One of my mottos is that it’s easier for a poor man to live a rich life in Cape Town. While acknowledging the carnage and trauma experienced by so many in this divided city, the mountain forest is why I think I will never leave.

It is a healing place, a place of peace and camaraderie, where strangers greet each other. The noises of the city fade. The clear fresh water I drink there quenches and soothes me. I feel alive, and celebrate the good connections I share, like the roots connecting the trees below ground.