Cycles and Optimism
I want to write more often - I’m challenging myself to release one blog post every day until July 1st (I’ll do 2 today since I already missed yesterday). There will be mistakes and typos. Feedback is appreciated. The easiest place to find me now is on twitter.
In any difficult period, personal or societal, a scary thought pops up in the back of our minds - “what if this is the end?”
Going off to college - what if I don’t make any friends and I really did peak.
Graduating college - what if I never have fun again.
Breaking up - what if I never find love again.
Recession - what if I blew my opportunity to be rich.
Losing an election - what if my beliefs never become reality.
Social unrest - what if this turns to a civil war or the end of our country.
Bubble burst - what if it really was a scam and overhyped.
What if this is the end? Of civilization, of my dreams, of what I thought was possible? Unfortunately, that thought is particularly loud today.
This thought arises because we default to thinking “this time is different”, that we’re living in 100% unprecedented times. But I think history and life is a lot more cyclical, and less unique than we want to think.
Fourth Turning Theory
I recently read The Fourth Turning - a book that hypothesizes that American history has been fairly cyclical, following a simple cadence. It’s inspired by the fact that many civilizations before us viewed the world as cyclical, sometimes even basing time on generations rather than years.
A cycle is 80 years, equivalent to a person’s lifetime, and includes four “turnings”, reflecting four generations. The turnings repeat like this:
High (1945-1964) - high social cohesion, high trust in institutions, peace, single culture, strong communities
Awakening (1964-1984) - emersion of new ideas, social order challenged, more self-awareness and spirituality
Unraveling (1984-2008, 1908-1929) - low trust in institutions, low social cohesion, more polarization, culture wars
Crisis (1929-1945, 2008 - ?) - institutions and culture are destroyed and rebuilt, nation’s survival is at stake, potential war, clear social order emerges, leading to next High
Generations also follow archetypes based on when they come of age - it’s expected that someone growing up during a Crisis or a High will have different personalities and fulfill different roles in society. You’d be pretty different if you came of age during or after a war, right?
A gut reaction that most people have when hearing about this is that history can’t be this precise, this cyclical. My reaction to that - why not? Why can’t things broadly repeat? Secondly, the years don’t actually matter - I don’t care if the Fourth Turning started on 9/11 or in 2008 or when Trump got elected. The idea is that generally speaking, it’s expected that we enter a period of social dysfunction around 80 years after the last Crisis. That’s not an insane idea to me.
But, if history is so cyclical, why does everything always feel so unprecedented? Even a pandemic, which happened 100 years ago, felt unprecedented. There’s at least two biases:
No one who was alive when this last happened is alive today. Part of this is exactly why crises happen - even mapping back to Medieval times, new wars happened when the previous war’s survivors passed away and couldn’t caution against a new war. But simply, none of us were around and could say “yeah this happened before, it’ll be alright.”, so it feels unprecedented. Who knows if we’d even listen?
Society is also accelerating really quickly - we don’t even have a lot of data going back to the previous Cycle and it just feels different. After all we have the internet, phones, misinformation, etc.. I’d argue that it always feels different, just as it always feels like the pace of technology is stagnating.
Thinking in Cycles
I’ve switched my mindset to view a lot of things as vaguely cyclical - “history doesn’t repeat, but it rhymes”. When it feels like the United States is going to collapse is when we’re closest to a new High, peaceful period. As I enter a new phase of life, part of me wonders if it’ll ever be as good as the previous ones. Shedding old identities and trying on new ones is terrifying.
But I come back to the cyclical nature of the world. Even down to the seasons, the world is cyclical. Things are good, then we try new things or abuse the good, then things aren’t so good for a while, then we plant new seeds, and things get good again and we grow. The world looks different when you look at it through cycles.
We need to be optimistic, which I believe is a conscious decision, not a result of things trending good or not (really enjoyed this essay on the topic by Packy). I choose to believe that the US will get better, that my life will get better, despite periods of darkness. That requires action, but also optimism.
But still, a part of me always wonders - what if this really is the end?