History Doesn’t Repeat Itself — It Spirals

Photo credit: Cas Holmes

History never repeats itself — but it rhymes.”

~Mark Twain

How do you measure a life?

The common answer is by its length, as measured in units of Time, but this is greatly variable — 7 and a half decades? 52 years? 23 years and 8 months? 6 minutes? 30 heartbeats? A pair of ragged breaths?

Another method of measuring a lifetime is by gauging the richness and variety of the experiences contained within the life in question — as the saying goes:

The important thing to you is not how many years in your life, but how much life in your years!

~Dr. Edward Stiglitz, MD

I ask this, because I recently turned 40, and as I age, I find myself recognizing new-but-familiar patterns in life as they complete their first cycles and start to repeat. At the same time, the length of these completed cycles and patterns seems to keep shrinking and taking on new qualities that I recognize with each pass across my notice.

Extrapolating this observation forward & backward in time has given me the insight that these cycles don’t form closed circles, because no two moments are ever exactly the same. We are each witnesses to the most complex moment in cosmological history, completely unique, and never to be repeated.

It’s an insight that’s led me to question the linear model of Time that we accept as a given in our society, and look for alternative models that could better explain my personal observations of these rhyming, yet not repeating, cycles of history. I’ve instead arrived at the hypothesis that the events of history are perhaps intersections of my linear series of observations with an ever-tightening spiral of Time.

Let me explain.

Jason, at Hour 1, Day 1, Year 1…

At the moment I was born (just 40 years ago), everything was new. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I was experiencing the first revolutions of many concurrent cycles of hugely varying lengths, that would continue to rhyme throughout my life. After all, over 350,400 hours’ worth of Time have passed through my life so far, but not one of them has been exactly the same. It could be represented diagramatically like so:

Day 1 must have lasted an eternity! 24 back-to-back hours filled with explosions of utterly mystifying complexity to me as a newborn. I experienced taking my first few breaths, my first hug, my first sunset. Things I (try not to) take for granted with their regularity nowadays were so completely new and alien to me, I couldn’t have even begun to understand what I was seeing and feeling at the time, but now – with age, experience, and repeated exposure, I take them almost as a given.

So far, I’ve described my experience exclusively in the language of linear Time, but these observed repeating patterns don’t only conform to standardized units (which are a social construct anyway; for immediate proof, just wish any Muslim or Chinese person a happy new year, and watch their bemused expression) – the patterns of my life also repeat with harder to define, yet clearly recognizable cycles like jobs, homes, personal relationships, sexual encounters, etc. These patterns rhyme throughout my life, but they never look exactly the same.

And is not time even as love is, undivided and spaceless? / But if in your thought you must measure time into seasons, let each season encircle all the other seasons / And let today embrace the past with remembrance and the future with longing.”

~The Prophet, Khalil Gibran

For the sake of simplicity, let’s call these “elastic” units of time, because they’re much less interchangeable than minutes, hours, days, etc., but still recur throughout my life with a certain frequency. A job can last a week, a year or a couple decades, as can a relationship… (a sexual encounter… umm, hopefully not as long ?).

Cycles such as these, though individually unique, undeniably repeat throughout one’s entire life. For the sake of visualization, the shape of a spiral appears to match these observed traits much better than the circle that’s typically evoked by the old saying “History repeats itself”.

Perhaps it’d be more accurate to say “History extrapolates itself”?

Speaking of extrapolation: I don’t think it’s just me that’s experiencing Time this way.

Human History is Rhyming, Right in Front of Us

“As above, so below, as within, so without, as the universe, so the soul…”

~The Principle of Correspondence, Hermes Trismegistus

The events of history do not form a perfectly circular loop – we know, for example, that the Roman Empire never rose again from the ashes of its fall, yet the general causes surrounding its eventual decline have recurred in other empires, such as the Han Dynasty in China (bad leadership and religious conflicts), and the Mauryan Empire in India (over-expansion and religion, again). Cycles of war and peace, famine and plenty, health and disease are now more easily recognizable from the zoomed-out historical perspective.

I liken this to how the Earth appears flat when one is standing on it, (a fact that makes Euclidean geometry & Newtonian physics highly useful tools, up to a point), but if you launch yourself into orbit, or dive down into the subatomic realm, you see that it is anything but. The drastically different landscape and perspective force us to transition to better-suited tools like Relativity and Quantum Mechanics in order to continue making sense of the world.

I believe that we only perceive Time as a linear, flat dimension, because we’re too close to it, and if we can zoom out a bit, we’ll gain a drastically new perspective of its texture and topology.

Let’s use our elastic unit of Time, relationships: the older we get, the more similarities we tend to perceive between our relationships as they sprout, bloom, wither, and fade, forming successive arcs of the same spiral – however as we zoom in closer, the unique differences between each turn of the spiral become more apparent:

More Than Just a Hunch?

Academics across several disciplines, from sociology to cosmology, also seem to be unearthing clues that indicate a spiral nature in Time.

Strauss-Howe Generational theory posits that, human society appears to follow a roughly 80-year seasonal cycle of activity, that swings between the extremes of communitarian, and individualist values, followed by a crisis that triggers the entire pattern to repeatedly play out in the history books. In other words, the faces and places may change, but the lines sound the same…

Similarly, Sir Roger Penrose’s theory of Conformal Cyclic Cosmology basically states that our Universe serves as the singularity from which another even bigger one is being born, and that ours was born from an entire Universe enfolded within the singularity seed from which sprouted everything we call “Reality”. The only difference between them is one of scale, similar to how the same game of chess can be played on a smartphone screen, a coffee table, and a courtyard. Just like how a spiral from which we zoom out, becomes the center of an even larger spiral.

Conclusions (and yet more questions)

If Time really is folding in on itself along an inward-spiraling trajectory, this would definitely explain why we feel like days last forever during our childhood, and yet months fly by during our old age, in comparison.

But if this is true, what happens at the end point of the spiral? Put another way: literally where (or rather, when), does all the Time go?

“People are just food, rearranged”

~Max Tegmark

Seeing Time from this perspective also puts a new slant on belief in reincarnation, in that it’s not a simple circle – it is a reinterpretation of one’s existence. Your body is reconstructed from matter that existed before your conscious life in a different configuration, and when you die, your body will be pulled apart, and recombined into new forms of existence – similar to what you are now, but never exactly the same.

Although it might be tempting to fear the loss of your current form, it’s also interesting to consider what incredible new extrapolations we all might become of ourselves in the future, each reimagined by the spiral of Time, as it sweeps through another arc of the infinitely tightening spiral into eternity.