Lines and Circles

Particularly in western thought, we think of many things as a linear process. When it comes to clothing and laundry, we put on clean clothes, we wear them and make them dirty, we put them in the dirty clothes bin. There is a linear beginning, middle, and end. When it comes to life, we are born, we live, we die. We often conceptualize things as occurring in a line, a line that has a start point, a middle, and then an end point.

There are other things that we often view as a cycle, or as a circle. For example, we might think about the seasons as an endlessly repeating cycle of Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter. A cyclical understanding of a process is much more easily conceptualized as a circle— without clear beginning or end, but instead continuously changing through a series of somewhat predictable, repeatable phases.

While some things are cyclical and some are linear, in reality, many (most?) processes could be conceptualized both cyclically and linearly. For example, we could view our day as a linear process starting in the morning when we wake up and ending at night when we go to bed, or we could view our day as a repeating, circular process. Neither is necessarily better or worse, but as I’ve written about before, any perspective will highlight certain characteristics while obscuring others.

Take, for example, laundry. We often think about this as a linear process— get dirty clothes and put them in the machine (start), let them machine work, take them out and dry them, fold, put away (end). However, laundry could also be conceptualized as a cycle: put clothes on, make them dirty, clean them and put them away, put clothes on… Its the same overall process, but viewed through a different lens and a different time scale. Why does this matter though?

If we think of a cyclical process as linear, we are likely going to be continuously surprised (and disappointed? Happy? Relieved?) that whatever it is has come back. If our mental model for the laundry is a linear process that we can end, then it is not surprising that we are constantly annoyed at having to do the laundry. However, if our underlying mental model is that laundry is a cyclical, never-ending process, we recognize that wherever we are in it is just… one space in the cycle.

So laundry is a (kind of) silly example— let’s try another. Given that it is the end of January, many people are recognizing that their New Year’s Resolutions are starting to fall apart. Generally, I’d suggest that we implicitly view new year’s resolutions as a linear process: make resolution (start), do it, fix whatever it was that we were resolving to do differently (end). This generally works out… not so well. However, what if we viewed these resolutions instead as part of an annual process of ​taking stock​ and setting intention? We can accept that we all need to evaluate where we are an make course corrections, and this needs to happen on different time scales. Rather than a New Years Resolution as being a linear process, it is instead part of a cyclical process we would all do well to engage in (maybe or maybe not on January 1).

Another thought— the closer we are to nature (the more time we spend outside, and the more we live connected to natural processes), the easier it is to recognize the cyclical nature of the world we live in. The more detached and abstracted we are from the natural world, the more difficult it is to see cycles.

So, what do you think of as linear that might better be viewed as a cycle? How does this change your perspective on things in your life.



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