The 4 Theories of Time

Compiling the ideas from authors William Strauss, Neil Howe, and Julia Cameron, Yancey Strickler describes four theories of time.

The first suggests that time is chaos. There is no order or meaning whatsoever. Any patterns would be entirely accidental.

The second theory is that time is a circle, and it somewhat disproves the first. We may not know why, but we can observe that, clearly, some things in life do repeat with reliable consistency. Like nature’s seasons, for example. Or the female reproductive cycle. Or the earth revolving around both itself and the sun, creating day and night and the calendar year.

The third theory is that time is a line, forever stretching forward and, in humanity’s case, up and to the right. Especially for the last 500 years or so, the speed of innovation and technological progress has kept increasing dramatically, making it seem like we’re headed towards some inevitable utopia in the long run, minus a few speed bumps here and there, such as world wars, pandemics, and climate change, for example.

Each of these theories has its own problems. The first is not just depressing, it is also false. Since we can now quite accurately see, measure, and even predict the same shifts in seasons, sea tides, and even star constellations from one year to the next, theory number one is out the window.

The second theory, while providing us with a baseline attitude towards time that makes concepts like birth and death, growth and decay a little easier to accept, poses no necessity for evolution. We could repeat the same humdrum steps every year, treading water in the same place until we die — and some of us do. Go to work, eat, watch TV, repeat. That too quickly becomes depressing.

The third theory finally brings some true meaning and much needed optimism into our perspective of time, but it too has a flaw: When we pretend that progress is inevitable, we’ll stop putting in the very effort it takes to make said progress actually happen. “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,” Strickler suggests. Other futurists, like Peter Thiel, have also criticized this “indefinite optimism,” as Thiel labels it in Zero to One.

So, what are we to do? The solution comes from an artist, not a scientist. In The Artist’s Way, Julia Cameron puts the line and circle together, thus creating — and this is theory number four — time as a spiral. “The Artist’s Way is a spiral path. 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.”

According to Cameron, life, especially the creative life, is like walking a long, winding path leading up a mountain. “‘I’ve been here before,’ we think, hitting a spell of drought. And, in a sense, we have been. The road is never straight.” In a spiral, we can go up, and we can go down. Growth is not inevitable, and even if we successfully pursue it, we’ll have to learn — and unlearn — the same lessons many times.

Besides delivering a more accurate view of reality, however, viewing time as a spiral adds another important element to our emotional arsenal, Strickler says: forgiveness. Being aware that our past challenges might return in the future in slightly different colors allows us to “grow without demanding perfection,” to pursue “the longer journey toward mastery” more calmly, and to enjoy life without expecting we’ll ever be completely done with all that we came here to do.

When you choose to believe in the spiral of time, each day becomes an opportunity to go up or down. You won’t always manage to go up, but every day, you’ll have a compelling reason to try — and when it comes to dealing with a force that much greater than us — time — trying may be the most important part.

May the winds of time be with you. I hope they’ll grant you safe passage up the infinite mountain, no matter how winding the path.