Most of us western polytheists – that is, polytheists who are likely to come out of a society shaped by Enlightenment thinking – say we believe in cyclic time, but actually believe in linear time in practice.
For many of us, our notion of cyclic time is bland at its best. It’s the stuff of calendar wheels, synonymous with that little-referenced “mythic time” where the repeating cycles of things other than the seasons always happens Elsewhere. Did Ragnarok happen or not? Who knows, who cares. Or, conversely, “it’s always Ragnarok somewhere”.
Why do we do this? Because it allows us to cling to the notion that we can make sense of history like we can make sense of a machine, and that we can then proceed to calibrate and master it once we do. History is no longer simply a series of moments, but something that we, O Great Humans, makers of our destiny, have ordained as the driver of our inevitable heaven on earth. Of course, no self-respecting voter would even think of using the word “utopia”, but the idea that we can achieve some better existence than what we currently have – some kind of world where everyone has jobs, where we can somehow still have a neutral internet and a netflix in every room without destroying the biosphere, where space exploration and access to chemotherapy are basic human rights – because the great threads of history exist for us to build that future on top of is still de rigour.
Let’s not use utopianism here. That term has been over-used by too many dystopian novels and sarcastic political commentators both. Let’s use, instead, the word meliorism.
Raise your hand if you’re a meliorist. You didn’t? Well, you probably should have, because you probably are one. To help me prove such a claim, compare your idea of progress to Wikipedia’s definition of the word:
It holds that humans can, through their interference with processes that would otherwise be natural, produce an outcome which is an improvement over the aforementioned natural one.
See? You’re probably a meliorist. You believe in spending time and resources trying to eliminate things like war and the common cold.
Meliorism necessarily depends on a linear conception of time, because cyclic time has no concept of improvement: if something gets better, it’ll get worse again; if something is around now, it won’t be later. Rinse, repeat. The notion that something can be improved upon until it’s reached its maximum utility requires a beginning and an end. (It also requires an empirical rubric for “better” and “worse”, but that’s a whole different headache.)
And if something has a beginning and an end, it is, by definition, linear.
The fact that so many of us, especially of the liberal and/or progressivist stripe, expect our Gods to fit into linear models of time and the universe is interesting to me, especially since They seem to spurn this at every chance They get. That is not to say that the Gods never change – they do! and they also don’t – but that we can get Them to change based purely on our needs in the moment and on what our vision of the future ought to be, is, frankly, laughable to me. Not only do the Gods see farther than we do, but historically speaking, every one of our projections of the future based on linear thinking has been flat-out wrong.
For many hundreds of generations now, the West has bought into the story of linear time both literally and symbolically – every goddess of personified nationalism since the 18th century is a product of this – and now we are beginning to rethink just the symbolic part of it.
Cycles are not mere symbol, fellow polytheist. They are real; material; physical; concrete. Our tangible world is made up of untold layers of them. Life-death-rebirth is not like gravity, a mere localized hindrance that we might engineer into irrelevance by way of some escape velocity reached with the right combination of stolen fire and cocksure bombast.
No – nothing lasts forever. The problem is when we bear witness to the ends of things we had been told were never going to end. There are two ways to react to this: as a child experiencing the death of a parent, or an adult experiencing the death of a parent. I’ll leave it to you to decide the difference. It’s never easy. But it can either be a wound and an injustice, or it can be the way of things.
This will not last forever. This blog; this blogging platform; the internet as a whole. Borders will move and buckle. Rivers will dry up. Coastlines will disappear. So too will people and fish and forests and megafauna. When is not for us to divine, suffice to say that it will.
An interesting effect of acknowledging the real immediacy of cyclic time rather than relegating it to invocations and logographs is that it makes it easier to accept mistakes, because you’re not damned for all of linear eternity for them: something that undergirds much of our current inability to face the climate change and biosphere collapse of humankind’s most egregious mistake yet. This, too, informs our current socio-political purity culture. But I’m not here to talk about politics per se; rather that, if you live in a world with a more cyclic understanding of time, then new beginnings just so happen to be much easier to come by.
The difficulty of accepting cyclic time for what it is is this: saying goodbye. Saying goodbye is hard, and when it comes to things we’ve convinced ourselves we can’t live without, then it’s just about impossible. I believe we need to learn to say goodbye more, especially to things we’d rather have around forever.
Because we’ve inherited a world of Leavings.
Our friends are going home, and the house will be still and quiet sooner than we want.
Always sooner than we want.