After Quarantine: The Wheel of Fortune Turns
While we are still in the midst of relatively strict social distancing orders, it is clear that a shift is coming. Eventually, though who knows when, the threat of COVID-19 will begin to fade. Who will we be when this stage of life has ended? And will we be ready for the next turn of the wheel?
Generally speaking, we in the modern West structure our world around a fairly linear concept of time. We are born, we live, and then we die. Our existence has a beginning, a middle, and an end. One of the great advantages of this framework is the urgency it lends us. We are raised with the stoic idea momento mori, "remember you will die," implanted in our perceptions of the world. Such a reminder helps us to avoid wasting time and encourages us to be about our business of bettering the world.
While this is the most familiar view of time, however, it is not the only one. For many centuries in both the East and West, time was viewed as a wheel--a mechanism that turning in revolutions and cycles. This wheel, the Wheel of Fortune, has since been trivialized as an idea. Now, it is most familiar to us simply as the name of a television game show. Most of us never even consider life to be even vaguely like a wheel. To us, time is a straight line with a beginning and an end. Again, there are certain advantages to this framework. At the same time, however, there is much to recommend a view of time as cyclical. In our present crisis, we may need to draw upon this idea more than ever.
The notion of time as linear, for one thing, can be extremely uninvolved. If we think of ourselves as passengers on a train moving on a line of track, we almost always think of it as a straight line. We are moving with a slow (or speedy) inevitability towards our end. It's worth asking, though probably impossible to answer, how much this subconscious notion does to instill feelings of helplessness and anxiety within us. We are chugging along towards some unseen end.
If we view time as a wheel, however, then our experience of it is less like a train and more like a Ferris Wheel. There is still a certain inevitability to the path we are on. Auden was still correct to write "O let not Time deceive you, / You cannot conquer Time." The wheel will keep turning, meaning that there is a degree of fixity to our future.
Yet there is also a new element: Change in fortune, which provides new perspective and understanding. If we have been brought low by grand events beyond our control--say, perhaps, the advent of a worldwide pandemic--then it is just as certain that the wheel will eventually turn. Medieval writers, such as Boethius, saw the world in this way. The trick, if it can be called a trick, is to not be taken in--to avoid being suckered into believing that your position on the wheel is permanent. When we are "riding high" we need to remember this fact. The person at the top of the wheel must always eventually begin their descent. The soil from which our matter is drawn is where we will eventually sleep. As Eliot wrote, "in my beginning is my end." Our ride on the cycle is eventually completed. The wheel must turn.
There is a certain comfort in this as well, however, because what goes down must come up. Everything that is brought low must also be exalted, in its time. Forest fires, so long as they do not burn too hot, enrich the soil and lead to new vegetation growth. As adults leave behind their childhood, they by-and-large end up choosing to bring a new generation into existence. When fortune turns away from one person, it looks to bestow riches on another.
The cyclical view of time reminds us that no stage in life is permanent; but it does so in a way that flies in the face of nihilistic assumptions that "nothing means anything." If suffering and prosperity are two sides of the same coin, then there is a deeper meaning that underlies them both. Boethius, a medieval/classical writer I mentioned above, suggests that the key to understanding this deeper meaning is to look not at the edges of the wheel, but at the hub. What is at the center of all things, what remains constant while the rest of the world changes?
Boethius goes on to suggest that it is often when we are at the bottom of the wheel that we come closest to understanding the centrality (see what I did there?) of this question. When we are at the top, when things are pleasant, our eyes roam freely all around. We are dizzy with the excitement of everything we can see. When we are brought low, however, and are clinging onto the wheel, our eyes are inevitably draw up in a straight line towards that which is at the center.
Sooner or later, the wheel will turn, and the many deep sorrows of the pandemic (which are real, painfully real) will pass. When the next turn of the wheel arrives, though, will we be ready? Will we have discovered the fixed point in our lives, the hub around which all things revolve?
There is a word in sanskrit for this point: Shantih. In English we have no such single word, but can express the idea with the phrase "the peace that passes understanding."
And that's something worth searching for.