My mind comes fully equipped with certainties, which I could probably challenge and thereby see things differently. But what would that actually accomplish? Why not just stick with the tried and true–well “tried” at least? Isn’t one out of two an acceptable batting average is this game of life?
This morning, the box of Kleenex on the kitchen counter, from which I typically pull out several sheets to clear my sinuses while making coffee and rinsing a few dishes, came up empty after delivering a single tissue. A bizarre thought came to me. Using up the few hundred sheets that the box had originally contained felt like the completion of a cycle; and opening another box–the beginning of a new one.
Yet surely a pop-up box of tissues is an instrument designed to dispense a series of identical items, much as a clock dispenses its ticks and tocks. How can such an agent of sequential, one-after-another distribution of identical items also be cyclical in nature?
As my nose stopped running and the coffee machine beeped to announce that a pot of fresh coffee was ready for me to pour my first cup, I retired to the couch to ruminate on the possible relationship between temporal cycles and a linear sequence of moments. What exactly is different between the ebb and flow of rolling waves of time and our mad dash to get to the next moment?
Plenty of cycles came to mind: each day repeats events that arrive on schedule (first cup of coffee, feeding the dogs, taking a few pills, writing in my journal); each week measures out its own set of activities (wind the clock on Saturday, put out the garbage on Tuesday; visit a friend at the VA on Monday evenings); then each month further repetitions return in their more leisurely orbits (changes in watering schedules, filter replacements, monthly bills); and each year delivers activities that turn still more slowly on the dance floor of our lives (income taxes, daylight saving time change, wedding anniversary and birthdays, change over from cooler to furnace and furnace to cooler, planting, harvesting, and—marking our willingness to treat the year as a meaningful body of time–New Year’s Resolutions).
But events that express a cyclical character of time also arrive as steps on a sequential timeline. Indeed, cyclical markers in the flow of time can feel more like scheduled stops glimpsed through a train window than the comings and goings of oceanic tides of time.
It seems that simply enumerating patterns which repeat, circle, and spiral through our lives does not in itself allow us to feel alive within a broad span of time nor rooted in an open field of space. And as for appreciating our time on Earth within a wider spectrum of significance, it seems we are easily hypnotized by the relentless pace of a time that is accelerating in one direction along tracks that have been laid down by what has happened in the past. Cycles show up merely as interesting shapes within the unstoppable advance of sequential time.
Or is there something deeper to discover in the dynamic rhythms that keep showing up in the flowing stream of our experience?
Perhaps cyclical time and linear time are two ways of viewing an intrinsic wholeness that lies at the heart of the mysterious essence of life. Like the wave and particle ways of looking at light energy (where some properties of light can be explained as waves and others as packets of energy), perhaps some properties of time are best understood as great waves (human lifetimes, the durations of cultures, of suns and of solar systems); and others as a series of present moments, which it is convenient for us to count, distribute, distinguish and measure, as we try to balance our lives within a complex society.
Yet a longing persists for something deeper and more abundant than we are able to experience as long as we feel trapped in one isolated moment after another, each of which keeps dying on the vine of our fragmented lifetimes. Whether the present moment is spinning in circles or heading straight ahead one tick at a time, a central issue remains: how can we experience our lives in greater depth and breadth than as disassociated moments of experience?
A pop-up box of tissues does not a doorway to eternity make.
There is something worth pondering further—something more fundamental than how we look at the flow of time.
George Santayana observed: “Those who forget the past are condemned to relive it.” Over the years I have shifted in my understanding of this phrase. Our society certainly repeats the same mistakes over and over again. But perhaps it isn’t only a failure to learn from the past but also a failure to honor the future; more specifically, a failure to live in a larger flow of time in which the past and the future naturally collaborate: the past providing knowledge of how the world works and the future providing us with a vision of what is possible and what is worthwhile spending time on.
The film “Groundhog Day” provides a fascinating study of cyclical time. “Weather Man Phil” is stuck in the same day, waking up over and over and over to the same radio sound track. He is unable to escape this repetition until he learns to respond differently to it—as opportunity not imprisonment. The movie’s power is that it resonates so strongly with all those emotional cycles and unproductive habits that most of us find ourselves sometimes stuck in; all those ingrained reactions of jealousy, resentment, envy and discouragement which serve to perpetuate the situations that cause pain for ourselves and for others.
“Groundhog Day” includes a familiar spiritual story–about stepping into the same hole in the sidewalk until we finally take a different street. In Phil’s case, every morning he races to the town center where, since he is the weather man, he has to report on whether the groundhog sees its shadow; and every morning he steps into a slush-filled pothole–until he finally learns to hop across it. The entire movie explores this theme—using humor and impressive spiritual insight into how we will spin helplessly in small futile circles until we can appreciate a wider world beyond ourselves.
After uncounted days, each one a repetition of the one before, Phil starts to relate to people around him. Gradually he replaces the blinders of resentment, arrogance, and self-centered absorption with a caring engagement in the lives of others. Eventually an unselfish love for Rita, his producer, and a growing concern for everyone he meets in Punxsutawney blossoms, and only then does a new morning finally arrive for him.
Perhaps this provides a clue on why it is important for each of us to recognize the cyclical nature of time. As long as we see ourselves racing along a straight highway of time, stuck in one lane, without hope or dreams, scarcely noticing the landscape passing on either side, we will see our lives held in the grip of limitation. But, when we feel ourselves carried along in more spacious waves of time, connected with and concerned about the fate of others, then perhaps the familiar turnings of time will be seen as graceful gestures of a cosmic dance that has been waiting all along for us to join in.