Ain’t no miracle being born,
People doin’ it everyday.
It ain’t no miracle growing up,
People just grow that way.
So it goes like it goes
Like the river flows,
And time it rolls right on;
And maybe what’s good gets a little bit better,
And maybe what’s bad gets gone.
It Goes Like it Goes, Words by Norman Gimbel, Music by David Shire
© 1979 Fox Fanfare Music, Inc. All Rights Adminsitered by Warner-Tamerlane Publishing Corp.
All Rights Reserved. Used by permission of Alfred Music, License # PR161006-2007.
For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven. Ecclesiastes 3:1
If April is the cruelest month, as T.S. Eliot wrote, October seems to me perhaps the most wistful. As the nights get a little frosty and the leaves start to turn, we naturally start to think about changes from the exuberant vibrancy of high summer to the subtler pleasures of autumn. Around here, there is a measure of exhausted relief as the tourists begin to taper off, mixed with a sense that the excitement is ending and we’re entering a period of quiet. We turn from an outward focus on the world visiting us, to a cozy reconnection with our nearer neighbors.
October contains more kinds of homecomings than just football games: younger students return to school and get back to schedules and homework, but with new teachers and new things to learn. College students return to campus homes that may begin to feel ambiguously more like home than the home they have left. In some senses, it feels we are returning to our normal lives.
We know we are in a cycle because of the things that repeat; we know that we are moving on because of the things that are different. Even in the seemingly endless cycle of the seasons, there are variations: will this winter be strangely mild as last year, or shockingly harsh as two years ago? Is the world getting warmer, are sea levels getting higher, are lobsters moving north and shedding earlier? Or is this just part of the grander ebb and flow of our planet?
From close up, it’s sometimes hard to tell the difference between a turn in a large-scale cycle and a real change in the world. For a mayfly that lives one day, the world moves in one direction, beginning at dawn, moving through noon and ending at sunset. It would be hard to explain to a mayfly that the entire cycle repeats every twenty four hours, or that there is a greater repeating cycle of three hundred sixty-five days of varying lengths. We know that our solar system orbits around the center of our Milky Way galaxy every 250 million years or so, but that knowledge has little impact on our experience of a crisp October sunrise.
Like mayflies, our own lives have a beginning, a middle and an end; dawn, midday, and dusk. But we have the gift and the burden of seeing our family and neighbors being born, maturing, aging and dying, and can understand our own life-day as a turn in the cycle, our life-seasons as part of the rhythm of the cosmic dance. And yet, we experience our lives as moving forward: this year will not be exactly like last year, and the person we are today is not simply a repetition of the child we were. We grow and change, our world changes, and we try urgently to make sense of the change, to give shape and meaning to the narratives of our lives. The cycle repeats, the seasons change, and nothing is ever quite the same.
Cycles are safe, repetition is cozy, but it doesn’t get us anywhere. Nothing gets any worse, but neither does it get any better. The world around us is caught up in its own vicious cycle of better, faster, bigger, newer, but that is just an eddy in the larger, almost imperceptible arc of human history, which Dr. King reminds is long, but bends toward justice.
And that long arc of human relationship with God is what we call salvation history, which our tradition suggests has a beginning, a middle, and an end: a dawn at creation, a brilliant midday in the incarnation, and a darkening sunset at the end of this world, when God’s Kingdom will finally be revealed in its fullness. For us mayflies in the late afternoon sun, this promise of completion sounds very much like death, but perhaps that is only because we have not seen and cannot imagine watching through the night to see the sun rising on a new day that is not just a repetition of today. A short piece of an arc may look very much like a straight line, but in fact it is part of a much larger circle.