A More Hopeful Way to Look at Time

Instead of viewing progress as linear, see it as a spiral

Photo: Picture Alliance/Contributor/Getty Images

For millennia, thinkers from ancient philosophers to modern cosmologists have grappled with the question of how time functions. In a book called The Fourth Turning, the authors William Strauss and Neil Howe sort the theories of time into three categories:

1. Time is chaotic. There’s no order at all.

2. Time is cyclical. Time is marked by repetition — the sun rises and sets, seasons change, and living things go through the biological cycle of birth, life, death. Until the Renaissance, this is how people experienced time, the authors contend. There was no technological progress. The world was a loop.

3. Time is linear. With the Renaissance and the acceleration of technology, humans invented the linear theory of time. In this theory, the authors explain, time is viewed as “a unique (and usually progressing) story with an absolute beginning and absolute end.” Humanity is always improving, and given enough time and technology, all problems can be solved. This is largely how the world sees time today.

But there is a fourth theory of time that’s also worth considering.

In The Artist’s Way, the international bestselling self-help guide, Julia 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 two theories of time together: We will face the same, cyclical challenges even as we seek linear growth. When we think about it visually, we get this metaphor: Time is a spiral.

Throughout our lives, we will constantly circle the same themes and challenges. The past keeps echoing back. Those echoes are opportunities for us to either 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 is not just theoretical, but a framework for living. Navigating time is much easier when you’re aware that the spiral exists. As the authors of The Fourth Turning explained, when people saw time as cyclical, 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.

In a world where we believe time is solely linear, by contrast, we lose our capacity to prepare. When society believes that a better future is constantly just around the corner, getting ready for the worst feels unproductive and pessimistic. 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 Murray was aware that he was in a loop that time moved forward.

And this awareness of time doesn’t just shape our lives — it shapes the world of today and successive generations. In my book This Could Be Our Future, I visualized this system 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 toward mastery. Our struggles simply mark another loop on the climb.

Author of “This Could Be Our Future: A Manifesto for a More Generous World”; Cofounder of Kickstarter; Bentoist; http://www.ystrickler.com