My Belief in Cycles…

With everything that’s happening on the planet these days I’m paying increased attention to all its cycles–cosmic, solar, historical, political, business, gestational and creative. Some, like cosmic, solar and gestational are immutable. The others are at the mercy of humans and human events.

In the fifth century B.C. the Greek historian and geographer Herodotus was the first to categorize and investigate ethnographical, geographical, and historical events and come up with a theory regarding their origins. It was the first systematic theory of history. Over the 2600 years since other theories have been propounded–Thomas Carlyle’s Great Forces or Great Man theory, Arnold Toynbee’s Challenge and Response theory, and Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. The “random” theory,” currently in favor, holds the interaction of billions of humans and their choices along with all the other natural and unnatural factors in the world creates history with no discernible flow or path.

In college I had the good fortune to study with the remarkable Giovanni Costigan. For 41 years he captivated University of Washington history students. I went to his classes even when I wasn’t enrolled. Costigan subscribed to Oswald Spengler’s philosophy of history as articulated in his two volume treatise The Decline of the West.  The German historian believed that each civilization has a life cycle that includes childhood, youth, manhood and old age, and at the end of its cycle a civilization becomes “a petrified body characterized in the modern age by technology, imperialism, and mass society which he expected to fossilize and decline from the 2000s onward.” He published the theory in 1918 but 100 years later his forecast is turning out to be as timely as it was uncanny.

I wanted to believe otherwise, but recent events, natural and political, have moved me closer to Spengler’s view. In the past I described myself as a short term pessimist and long term optimist. Today I see myself as an existentialist watching the world unravel.

I’ve lived a life of privilege–born white, born in 20th century America, born healthy, born into a middle-class family. I was the beneficiary of a free public education from kindergarten through law school, became a Marine Corps fighter pilot during peacetime and a Pan Am pilot during the glory days of commercial aviation. For the past 25 years I’ve lived with my fifth-grade girlfriend. All good fortune.

Despite that good fortune, seven years ago I began to doubt my positive view of our civilization. It was jolting. It’s clear that we haven’t lived up to our potential or honored those who gave us our system of government. We ignored both nature and our “better angels.” We didn’t learn the lessons of our own Civil War or those of WWI or WWII. We never accepted the equality of races, genders or religions. We didn’t listen to what science was telling us about climate change and the effect it has on our planet.

And while we have elected some visionary leaders, we are also electing ignorant, greedy, ambitious demagogues–Putin, Xi, Orban, Bolsonaro, Milei, Modi, Netanyahu, Trump, and the unelected military juntas in Afghanistan, Myanmar. We celebrate and reward the wealth of ego maniacs like Elon Musk and largely ignore the grace and generosity of Melinda French Gates and MacKenzie Bezos.

My steadfast belief in America’s aspirational values has cracks and dents. It’s existential now. We were flawed but I believed in our system. Even after Trump’s defeat I believed we could recover. But Biden has squandered whatever good will America gained in uniting NATO in support of Ukraine. His handling of our departure from Afghanistan and his tone deaf full-throated support for Netanyahu and Israel’s destruction of Gaza are unforgiveable. The last straw was Friday’s American veto of a UN resolution demanding an immediate humanitarian cease fire.

The score today is 1200 violent Israeli deaths on October 7th in contrast to the 18,000 violent Palestinian deaths and untold thousands of maimed, displaced, homeless, and starving Gazans at the hands of the IDF (Israeli Defense Force). Unconscionable.

I still believe in cycles. My granddaughter, Georgia, and her wife, Lisa, hope to have a child next year. My grandsons, Will and Charlie, are in college. Eamon is planning to become an apprentice electrician, and Matt Jr. is in a bank training program. Ben and Lucie, are excellent student athletes, and the youngest, Leevi, is in elementary school. I hope the world takes care of them. They don’t deserve less.

There must be a degree of optimism baked into our DNA, because even I, at some level, remain aspirational. In September I was accepted for a two-year online novel writing program at Stanford. There are 60 of us in the program, and I’m encouraged when I see the talent and positive energy the others generate. Keep me, and them, in your thoughts this holiday season. I will keep you in mine. Be well.

Comments

  1. Hey Jack, Great column as always, but even more timely than most.
    I have always been a strong optimist but I must say these recent events and the fact that Trump is polling better that Biden scare the Hell out of me.
    Anyway, since you and I are exactly the same age, we need to stay connected and in touch with all this.
    Happy Holidays to you and yours and feel free to reach out any time, Gary

  2. Jack:
    Greetings from a fellow tennis nut and writer who hopes to string words
    together that have some meaning to someone. I think your writing has done the latter. And I will be interested to hear how the Stanford project goes.
    From your periodic words, I find your thoughts parallel mine when it comes to the
    disappointment of our country’s progress, or decline.
    But I think it’s important to continue to express our views.
    The words you are using to explain your views are much more articulate than mine. Please keep it up. Your fellow citizens and family members will appreciate it.
    Sally and I did a small bit recently when we finished our memoirs for our family
    members. You might want to do the same at some later time. But don’t wait too long; father time does not wait too long.
    Keep up the writing and hope to see you on the court.
    John Macdonald

  3. Jack, that’s great news, though not at all surprising, about your acceptance into the Stanford writing program as it’s obvious you have quite a gift with words. You’re proving that it’s never too late to find one’s second act! Your posts are a welcome respite from all the depressing news in the world. xo (a fellow optimist)

  4. Hi Jack Bernard,

    A friend and colleague volunteer at the VA Puget Sound Medical Center forwarded your blog to me. Since our thoughts seem to coincide in many areas I am motivated to write to you.
    A note on my background: UW Army ROTC Distinguished Military Graduate, RA, Ordnance Corps…”Detailed 2 yrs Infantry”…I resigned the Regular Army commission in order to get off active duty in 3 years rather than 5. I spent a transformative year as an infantry platoon leader in Vietnam…BTW, Costigan wrote to me while there…6 years Reserve, got out just before my O-5 boards… three years as a stock broker after active duty…back to the UW for a teaching degree and grad school…ABD for my doctorate( reluctant/indolent writer…)…school teacher for the next 36 years.
    What really got to me about your blog was your comment on optimism and the last 7 years.
    I had been an optimist all of my life…until the last 7 years.

    Trying to hang-on to a thread of hope,

    Steve

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