How Christmas helps us see time differently

Being a modern Western person, you probably subscribe to a linear perception of time.

What I mean by this is that you see time as a straight line, stretching into the future, along which you and society “progress” – onwards and upwards, cumulatively into the future.

Seen this way, life is essentially a progression along this path; and if you live it well, things gradually get better and better the further you travel.

In such a life, the focus therefore is on constant change and improvement in order to make that journey. We see this philosophy play out in:

  • Life (how can I get more?)
  • Career (when’s my next promotion?)
  • Society (how can we move forward?)
  • Business (how can we grow / expand?)

Linear time, improvement mindset. This is the dominant assumption of our age; the invisible water we swim in.

So much of a given is this paradigm, that it’s probably pretty difficult for people to imagine any alternative. And yet, surprisingly, the majority of humankind throughout history didn’t see things this way. They subscribed to a completely different conception of time, which trickled down to very different set of behaviours.

It is this alternative view of time I want to sell to you here, as it has huge utility in our life today.

The idea? Not linear, but circular time.

Circular Time

Circular time sees life not as a straight road, but rather as a wheel of endlessly recurring patterns.

This is most easily understood when you think of nature. The rise and fall of the sun, the ebb and flow of the tide, the coming and going of the seasons, the movements of the planets – all these things are essentially set on loop, repeating seemingly endlessly (at least from the point of view of a human life cycle). If you look at things on a sufficiently zoomed out timeline then yes, you can perceive macro change; but at “ground level” this is imperceptible, the dominant motif is repetition.

Naturally the reason we’ve moved away from this is because recently (the past 150 years or so) there has been rapid noticeable change in our society, thus giving a palpable feeling of forward momentum which has essentially “rewired” our perception. But this is historically unusual; for most people circularity was more common.

Now what’s interesting about this idea is the way that it changes on-the-ground behaviour.

If you view time as circular, then your focus is completely different to when you view it as linear. Rather than seeing life as a game of improvement, you see it as a game of maintenance. Your aspiration isn’t revolution but continuation – rather like the creatures of nature, who serve the ecosystem not by changing their behaviour but by repeating it.

In such a life, you ask very different questions:

  • Life (how can I preserve what I have?)
  • Career (what do I enjoy doing?)
  • Society (how can we preserve things for future generations?)
  • Business (how can I make something that survives indefinitely?)

As you can see, a profound difference.

Linear time, improvement mindset —> circular time, maintenance mindset.

The joy of circular living

Although we all live in the linear paradigm, we still experience the circular feeling from time to time in the form of any recurring static tradition. In the UK and USA by far the largest of these is Christmas.

Notice how society never gets bored of Christmas, despite its repetitiveness. Nobody ever feels the need to innovate on the Christmas tree, or ditch the old Christmas songs, or stop watching the old Christmas movies. On the contrary, it appears that the more these things are repeated the more they are appreciated. This completely flies in the face of the linear philosophy, which assumes that everything must always be moving forward, lest it get stale.

Therefore, at Christmas time, we are getting a taste of the mindset of our ancestors.

In a fully circular culture, life would essentially be one long Christmas. The year would be broken up into a sequence of traditions (solstice, harvest, etc.), and the focus would be on the joy of their repeated process.

An interesting lesson of history is how much more successful circular societies have been than linear ones – if you measure success in terms of survival. The longest lasting human civilisation – that of the Kalahari bushmen – was also its most circular. They survived for over 100,000 years with essentially zero change, just pure repetition. Conversely the shortest lived civilisation – that of the USSR – was arguably history’s most linear; utterly focused on progression to a hypothetical future endpoint at the expense of the present for the entirety of its 69 years.

By the same token, the one thing which almost every 100+ year old business has in common is circularity. These are businesses which chose to offer a certain value to the world, click into a groove, and then continue offering that value indefinitely and repetitively, without a particular focus on linear growth. Conversely growth focused businesses, who assume the need to get bigger and more diverse every year eventually go pop – as evidenced by only 12% of 1955’s Fortune 500 companies still existing in any form today.

I appreciate that to us such a circular existence may, on the face of it, sound incredibly boring – but the enduring popularity of Christmas begs to differ, suggesting that this could be the lifestyle we crave (which makes perfect sense, evolutionarily speaking).

Clearly we’re not going to abandon the linear paradigm any time soon – and arguably we shouldn’t. However at this time of year I find it nice to reflect on the under-appreciated benefits of the repeated and the unimproved. Of the value of maintenance rather than change. Of recognising that we aren’t on the road to a particular destination, but that we’ve already arrived; and that a full and rich life is not the privilege of some future “elect”, but is ours at this moment.

So let’s take break from “changing the world”, and for a few weeks rediscover the pleasure of keeping something alive rather than making something new.

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