A More Hopeful Way to Look at Time

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

Yancey Strickler
Published in
4 min readJul 5, 2020


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…