If you were to observe spirituality as a theme in my life, the intensity of the attention I put toward it would look something like an electrocardiogram: A wobble, a relatively short burst of energy and insight, followed by a longer period of integration and/or indifference. Spiritual questions were of primary importance to me in my teens and early twenties. and they became particularly significant again in my late thirties and early forties. I got a third pulse in my early fifties.
In retrospect, one of the less significant insights from my first spiritual foray now appears to be one of the most valuable. It concerns our moral relationship to time.
Since I was raised Christian in America, I grew up as participant in a sweeping story about good and evil: God cast down Lucifer, Lucifer corrupted man, God sacrificed Jesus to redeem man, and now Jesus is in the midst of a roughly 2,000-year invisible tussle with Satan here on Earth. At some point God will call time on all this back-and-forth between good and evil, Jesus will return, and good will triumph.
Our cultural concepts of time and morality are founded on that story, and they’re fundamentally intertwined. Good and evil are separated in Christianity, with all good coming from God and all evil blamed on the Devil. Because the story has an ending, we know in advance that this conflict between good and evil is just a passing phase, not some eternal balance. Christianity has a classic linear story structure, too, with a beginning, a middle and an end, not to mention a conflict, compelling characters, and even character arcs (of sorts).
Within this concept of time, Good and Evil are immutable opposites, and morality is fixed and static. The right choice is the right choice no matter when you make it, so making the right choice at all times becomes a moral imperative. This will be true until the story ends (and with it, time itself) in God’s victory
This is actually what made Christianity such an effective, portable religion. Before the establishment of the Catholic Church, most religions viewed time as a cycle based on the solar calendar. The sun is conceived in the darkness of the winter solstice, grows through adolescence to its adult power by Midsummer, prospers in later adulthood before entering its decline, and then withers and dies around the first of November. Its death is only temporary, of course, and the entire story begins again on or about Dec. 20 (here in the Northern Hemisphere, anyway).
Our ancestors saw The Wheel of the Year as a direct analogy for the stages of their lives, and a connection to a reality where time is a repeating constant and the world itself is sacred. As Vine Deloria put it, the genius of early Christianity was that the church snipped the circle of ancient spirituality and stretched it out into a line. Instead of the world being sacred, the linear story of God, Satan and Jesus became sacred. You could take it anywhere, preach it to the wildest of heathens, and its unifying monotheistic imperatives would still apply.
Here’s a truth about Americans: We think that “working toward a solution” is a moral imperative. When an American says “You’re either part of the problem or you’re part of the solution” that’s not an observation. It’s an admonition. God sits in his Heaven in judgment, and just thinking good thoughts is not enough. We have to pick a side — and once you’re on Team God, you’re expected to Do God’s Work.
This trait not only makes us some of the most meddlesome people on the planet, it also inspires us to squander shameful amounts of valuable energy on pointless thrashings-about.
Take for example our current national angst over “whether we’re doing enough to to stop Trump.” Resistance to the plundering of our Republic is a progressive moral imperative, but making our actions effective is also something of an imperative. Speak to most liberal/progressive activists for even a few minutes and you’ll usually hear about how things would be so much better “if people weren’t so lazy.” In other words, the reason Trump is still in the White House and the GOP is still busily demolishing the republic in the service of its corporate overlords is that we’re just not working hard enough to stop them.
Well, that’s really not the solution. That’s just the way we’ve been raised to think about solutions.
Yes, Solomon says the opposite in Ecclesiastes, and that popular Old Testament book remains a significant part of the Christian canon. But time isn’t linear to Old Testament writers, which leaves them free to think in conditional moral terms. On the other hand, New Testament writers are living in the God vs. Satan story line. Their morality must be absolute, untouched by the caveats of cyclical time.
Within the baseline Christian concept of time, any time is a good time to fight evil and “make the world a better place.” People who live within a circular, seasonal concept of time simply don’t think that way. You don’t plant corn in the fall and harvest it in the spring simply by trying harder. A man who undertakes a long and important trip in the rainy season when the roads are awash in mud isn’t celebrated as a faithful follower of Jesus, but mocked as a moron.
Trying harder, staying faithful and believing that God will come to your aid are all powerful motivations. They’re great for morale, and they can sustain people on long journeys. But taken as directions, they all too frequently lead us straight to places with names like Gallipoli, Ypres and the Somme.
The ancient Chinese I Ching, or Book of Changes, is an oracle devoted entirely to two questions: What is possible now? and What’s the best current course of action? We have our own Western oracle — the Tarot — but it’s far more fluid when it comes to interpreting timing and action. The I Ching can be a real prick about things, but at least it’s explicit about its premise: Even the “right” thing will be wrong if it’s done at the wrong time.
So even when our goal is clear, our task is always dependent on our perception of the timing. Making use of this subjective approach is neither art nor science, though it combines both concepts. But we can begin to retrain our thinking by classifying the forces that shape timing into three categories: Scheduled events, generally predictable trends, and serendipitous opportunities.
The 2018 and 2020 elections are scheduled events, You plan and organize for them, starting slowly at first and building toward maximum effort at the ultimate moment.
Economic cycles are generally predictable trends, and the U.S. economy is roughly five years overdue for a recession. You can’t plan for that, and it might not occur during this period of Republican political control. But what if recession — of any size — occurs? We should be thinking about how to use such a development to our advantage — and to prevent it from being used against us.
Despite all the coverage it receives, the Robert Mueller investigation into Trump’s apparent collusion with the Russians still falls into the category of serendipity. It certainly looks like Trump’s people were involved in various quid pro quos with the Kremlin, but no one knows today what Mueller will be able to prove, or what — if any — additional charges he’ll bring. With the right evidence, Mueller could topple not just Trump, but all sorts of towers. But if he fails to make a case, the backlash could be equally destructive — in our direction.
Should election cycles and business cycles and news cycles align in a favorable way, all sorts of changes may suddenly become possible. If we have good leaders, they’ll spot those opportunities at the crucial moment, and they’ll throw everything they can spare to risk into the breach. But if the timing is mixed, our efforts should reflect those conditions.
That’s the moral imperative of cyclical time: You must first understand when the moment is right, you must assess what is possible within the limits of the favorable situation, and then you must summon both the courage to act and the fortitude to see your action through.
In the meantime, smaller opportunities will present themselves unexpectedly. We should use each to gain ground and advantages, followed immediately by rest and consolidation. No one knew that Harvey Weinstein’s history of sexual aggression would blow up in the fall of 2017, but now that the #MeToo campaign has opened a gap in the patriarchy’s defenses, we have a fleeting opportunity to win control over a valuable crossroads in the culture war. The trick isn’t recognizing the problem — powerful men sexually harassing subordinates is neither new nor morally defensible. The trick is understanding when the enemy is vulnerable, how fast and far to advance, and when to halt. dig in, and celebrate.
But that’s not typically how we think. Progressives tend to be moral absolutists, abstract thinkers who routinely shame anyone who isn’t charging toward the enemy guns with sufficient vigor.
Don’t reprimand others for being passive when little can be done. Use that time for something else — including resting, reflecting and building relationships. Don’t let your own urgency seduce you into rushing alone into the fray. You’ll be no good for anything when the right moment arrives. And for heaven’s sake, set aside whatever dramatic, sweeping story you’re living long enough to pay attention to the actual world around you. You’ll never see things as they are if you’re self-righteously projecting your stories all over them.
Change is also quite a bit like an electrocardiogram: A little wobble, followed by a burst of energy, and a new resting status quo.
There is a time and a season to every purpose under heaven. That’s the wisdom of Solomon right there.