I recently read a book I’d been curious about called The Fourth Turning by William Strauss and Neil Howe. The book theorizes that history changes through generational shifts, and that these changes happen in predictable and repeatable patterns.
One of the big questions the book poses is the nature of time. The authors present three theories for how time functions:
- Time is cyclical (the four seasons; the cycle of birth, life, and death)
- Time is linear (things are getting progressively better)
- Time is chaos (there’s no order at all)
Until the Renaissance, the authors contend, people experienced time as cyclical. Life was marked by the repetition of seasons and birth and death. There was no technological progress. The world was a loop. When people started counting years they had to make the case why this was worth doing.
This changed with the Renaissance and the acceleration of technology. This created a linear sense of time. For the first time humanity felt it was improving. Given enough time and technology, problems could be solved. This is largely how the world sees time today.
There’s a fourth metaphor for time also worth considering.
This metaphor comes from a book called The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron, a self-help guide for artists. Cameron writes:
“You will circle through some of the same issues over and over, each time at a different level. There is no such thing as being done with an artistic life. Frustrations and rewards exist at all levels on the path. Our aim here is to find the trail, establish our footing, and begin the climb.”
Cameron’s wisdom brings our metaphors of time together. We will repeatedly face the same challenges — the cyclical notion of time — even as we seek linear growth — the progressive notion of time. Put them together and you get a fourth metaphor: time is a spiral.
We constantly circle the same themes and challenges in our lives. The past keeps echoing back. Those echoes are opportunities to make better decisions and grow into more mature versions of ourselves (shifting the spiral “up”) or to make worse decisions and regress (shifting the spiral “down”).
This way of explaining time may seem theoretical, but it has real-life applications. Especially as navigating time is much easier when you’re aware that the spiral exists.
As the authors of The Fourth Turning note, when people saw time as cyclical in the pre-modern world, no one tried to pretend winter wasn’t coming. The world cycled between fat and lean times. People survived the lean because they prepared during the fat. The truth of life was plain to see.
In a world where we believe time is progressive, we lose our capacity to prepare. Getting ready for the worst feels wasteful and ungrateful in a society premised on the belief that a better future is always just around the corner. Even the existence of a Plan B can challenge the entire value system.
Our awareness of time is meaningful. Compare Matthew McConaughey’s cryptic “time is a flat circle” refrain from True Detective — a bleak refutation of the spiral theory — to Bill Murray’s transformation to escape a conditional loop in Groundhog Day. It was only when Bill Murray was aware that he was in a loop and what the object of the loop was that time moved forward.
Awareness shapes the world of today and successive generations. In my book I visualized this process as the Values Helix — a spiral.
Seeing time as a spiral creates forgiveness. Even as we move past a challenge, we should expect another version to return. This awareness gives us permission to grow without demanding perfection, and opens up the longer journey towards mastery. Our struggles simply mark another loop on the climb.