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The Cyclical Nature of Things
Look for the patterns
“The old wheel turns, and the same spoke comes up. It’s all been done before, and will be again.” — Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, 1914
In Western Christianity, the first day of Lent (the 40 days leading up to Easter) is called Ash Wednesday.
And on that day, many people attend church services and receive ashes on their forehead accompanied by the dictum “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”
This is a direct reference to a line from the Bible in which Adam, who had been created from the dust of the earth, was informed of his mortality after being expelled from the Garden of Eden:
“For dust you are, and to dust you shall return.” — Genesis 3:19
And on Ash Wednesday, it is a reminder that we are born, we live, and we die. We have no control over the beginning, limited control over the ending, but much more control over what we do in between.
It’s the circle of life.
And this cyclicality isn’t just a Christian thing. The Hindu religion has a belief in the cyclical and self-renewing nature of all things. It’s called saṃsāra.
Interestingly, Kala is the Hindu god of death who is also the god of time. With time, we find grief lessened, life renewed, and second chances.
Imagine that. Nature has do-overs.
Ice ages follow eons of warmth, only to be followed again by warming.
Volcanoes rise from the ocean depths, creating islands that later teem with life. But reactivated lava can wipe that out and build more land mass.
“The disaster takes care of everything.” — Maurice Blanchot, 1980
Uncertainty and upheaval are natural. They happen all the time; we’re not the first generation to be experiencing it.
This is part of history’s cyclical nature. And while history doesn’t necessarily repeat (some say it rhymes), human nature is a constant throughout.
If you can understand how humans think, feel, and react, you’ll be prepared for the future.
While I don’t have a book out (yet), if you follow this link to a related essay, you’ll have a rabbit hole of no fewer than 12 other essays, each related to the next:
And while all of these essays are freely available to you, if you think that’s worth the price of a subscription — $5 a month — please consider it:
Seneca reminds us:
“What is quite unlooked for is more crushing in its effect, and unexpectedness adds to the weight of a disaster. This is a reason for ensuring that nothing ever takes us by surprise. We should project our thoughts ahead of us at every turn and have in mind every possible eventuality instead of only the usual course of events...Rehearse them in your mind: exile, torture, war, shipwreck. All the terms of our human lot should be before our eyes.”
As much as history can inform our understanding of the present, we’re never quite prepared for a crisis.
We can point to events and behaviors that presaged certain crises, and perhaps we can even pick them out today, but when a situation becomes acute, it seems to happen all at once and takes people by surprise.
Well-trained corporate communications teams participate in crisis planning and usually have a crisis plan or handbook at the ready when they need to snap into action. In the digital age, those tend to gather dust, as crises now depend on the speed of response and a well-tuned instinct.
In the winter of 1776, there was a crisis brewing.
It was on this occasion that General George Washington pulled out a handbook of his own: the appropriately-named collection of soul-stirring essays by Thomas Paine titled The Crisis.
Published on December 19, the timing couldn’t have been better (or tighter), as public opinion was mounting and troop morale was flagging. It was still early in the American Revolution, and its cause was on life support.
Washington’s troops were on the verge of quitting when, on December 23, he had the pamphlets read to his men, including this rousing opening line:
“These are the times that try men’s souls: The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of his country; but he that stands by it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman.”
Fortified in spirit, Washington’s forces crossed the Delaware River and attacked a Hessian garrison on the night of Christmas Day, as the Hessians were still in a drunken stupor from celebrating. It was a badly needed victory that changed the course of the war.
It would take nearly another seven years to make things final, but the Americans finally managed to expel the British.
Yet this relationship was cyclical as well. Over time, relations began to thaw and the two nations not only reconciled but became powerful allies.
The William Bradford painting above is reminiscent of an event that prompted this turnaround.
In 1854, the HMS Resolute was frozen in Arctic ice while on a search and rescue mission; the crew abandoned it. In the spring of 1855, an American whaler discovered it floating in the Davis Strait, after which the United States repaired it and returned it to the British.
The ship was decommissioned and broken up in 1879, and there was a competition to design and build a piece of furniture from it. In 1880, Queen Victoria presented a desk made from the timbers of the Resolute to President Rutherford B. Hayes.
The Resolute desk still stands in the Oval Office of the White House today, a symbol of the reciprocal and cyclical nature of the relationship between two nations.
“Many signs point to a growing historical consciousness among the American people. I trust that this is so. It is useful to remember that history is to the nation as memory is to the individual. As persons deprived of memory become disoriented and lost, not knowing where they have been and where they are going, so a nation denied a conception of the past will be disabled in dealing with its present and its future.” — Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., 2007
By having an institutional memory and a broader understanding of human nature from plenty of reading — history, nonfiction, literature, mysteries and more — we can prepare for what might come next.
Such wisdom is less like a map and more like a compass: it provides us with a sense of direction to avoid getting lost.
The decisions we make will be based on the terrain in front of us.
And when we recognize patterns, it means sure footing.
Thanks, and I’ll see you on the internet.