Photo by Val Keys
© 2018 Justin Cobb (Work in Progress)
There is no beginning and no end. This is just the part of the story where the blog enters.
A circle is the reflection of eternity. It has no beginning and it has no end – and if you put several circles over each other, then you get a spiral.
–Maynard James Keenan
Knowledge and experience taught me the ease of telling my story in a cycle rather than trying to keep it linear. Life itself does not pass on a straight line. This is a radical notion for a society regimented on the importance of due dates, starting and finishing lines, and even borders. We come up with a goal or a series of goals and we hope that following along a linear process will get us to our destination. We hope that hitting Point A will get us to Point B, and so on until we reach Z. There is something about lines that fascinate many humans. I would argue this comes from a need for order in the human experience. Lines have beginnings and ends. They can be measured and counted. They can be conceptualized and drawn.
We must remember this however: Lines do not naturally exist anywhere in the known universe.
Think about it. Where else outside of human society do you organically encounter lines? Space doesn’t have it. We are the ones who draw lines between two points in the celestial world– whether it be between stars, moons or planets. Animals do not work with lines either. While there are certainly animals including chimpanzees who know how to make tools– they often fashion them from materials that are already bent and shaped, and they are never a solid 180 degrees. It is humanity who creates lines. Or rather– we envision the concept of them. But even humans are incapable of naturally making solid straight lines without the use of a guide– such as with piece of paper or ruler. Let’s not be mistaken though: just because lines are not natural doesn’t mean they don’t exist. The fact that humans are capable of drawing them is reason enough to admit that lines have a presence. The lines that we draw in the sand, the ones that we visualize as we build up barriers or walls…none of that is real. They are human constructs just like money or gender or race. Just like the aforementioned though, the social implications of lines certainly are real.
What’s amazing too is that lines are optional for understanding human experience. Not all human beings tell stories with the concept of lines. To tell a story from the beginning and then draw it out over a span of time and/or distance with an end in sight is a form storytelling that humanity created; and which the West reiterated was the only way to express a narrative.
Storytelling in recent history of the West has followed a linear model. A character starts out in a world that they’ve always known and is operating within the rules laid out for them in that reality. That is until something drastic occurs– a new discovery, or an encounter with something that causes the character to question everything they thought they knew. Some of the most popular works of fiction in Western culture follow this linear process. Harry Potter discovers that he is not a freak of nature, but rather that he is the son of two great wizards. Katniss Everdeen offers her life in place of her sister at the annual Reaping and in her struggle for survival; discovers strength and courage that she never knew. Frodo Baggins inherits the One Ring from his Uncle Bilbo and has his quiet life pulled out from beneath his feet when he discovers that the Ring’s creator– Sauron– will stop at nothing to get it back to destroy the world as they know it. These characters are thrust into journeys, more often than not ones they don’t expect. With some exceptions– their stories unfold in a linear fashion where Point A leads to Point B, which then goes to C. On and on until they reach the end of their tale.
If you look elsewhere outside of human environments things never unfold before us in lines. They are constantly being presented as circles. The seasons, day and night, they all cycle. Unless trapped, water never stays in one place either. It evaporates, condenses into clouds, and then when it rains it returns to the ground. All things naturally go through cycles. Many human cultures have recognized the symbolic and literal importance of the circle, and the presence of multiple circles as spirals. Acknowledging this rotation, many people make efforts to reference the circle. Hindus for example don’t believe that existence has one beginning or end. Rather, we are caught in flux. We are the sum of billions of years in creation, evolution, and then destruction. Every birth has a death. Life doesn’t stay that way though. Eventually out of the death and destruction life begins anew, the gods reassemble the world and breathe new existence into it. So the cycles persist in a dynamic continuum. Everything and everyone consistently created, destroyed, then reborn until we either achieve moksha, nirvana, release or as some (such as myself) have come to refer to it: liberation. After Shiva destroys the world in a dance of fire and ash, the Brahman returns and recreates a whole new world and so the process continues for eons and eons.
Native North Americans don’t believe in the effectiveness of lines either. The hoop is everywhere in nature as we have established. Many Native North Americans versed in their storytelling traditions believe in the power of hoops. The great Oglala Sioux holy man named Black Elk referenced the power of circles frequently throughout his life story:
You have noticed the power in everything the Indian does is in a circle and that is because the power of the world always works in circles
–Black Elk (1932)
While stories may have beginning points, the narratives themselves unfold in an organic way. I use organic as a synonym for natural when it comes to storytelling. Oftentimes not in the order it happened, but in how the storyteller feels they can best convey them. Starting with one plot point and then returning to an event that may have happened earlier in order to explain the details and reasoning why something is occurring or will. This is true for other cultures and societies as well, especially indigenous populations located around the globe including continental Africa, South America, Asia, and Australia.
Before I go any further I would like to first state that I take no issue with the option of linear storytelling or people whom choose or the method of telling a story via linear, chronological order. Some stories can only best be presented in one such model. These are oftentimes stories where the recollection of it is best comprehended in the way it unfolded. Sometimes it is also best that accounts be relayed in chronological order to maintain its validity. This is especially true of a narrative that has a lot of context behind it– dates, figures, statistics, time, etc. Not only that but sometimes it is better for the narrator to convey their message in the order which the narration unfolds. Ultimately the people who tell a story must themselves choose the best medium (or method of storytelling), time, and place. Some people are best empowered when they can convey their stories in a linear process. Others feel that cyclical narration is better. Both are valid and effective ways of empowering individuals and collectives.
When I share my story with people now, I find that the order in which I tell it is not linear. For me it’s because I can’t reconcile storytelling in a strict linear fashion as my best method of approach. That’s because narratives (including my own) are never fully set in stone. Despite our best efforts they are not subject to the constrained order that comes with the nature of lines. While there are journeys that we undergo which may be fixed at certain points in our narrative, the fact of the matter remains that the story still lives in us. We undergo new trials and tribulations– sometimes we find ourselves revisiting lessons we thought we had learned or circumstances we thought we had gotten over. Some would argue that we return to see how far we have come in understanding the lesson; others believe that it’s a review of the material we didn’t pick up the first time around. Still others may say it’s just because life has a way of revisiting these instances because life is cyclical.
Me? I honestly don’t have a clue. I just like entertaining these thoughts and notions. While I certainly have some agreements and doubts with all the ideas put forward, I don’t like to package things in boxes that can’t neatly fit.
I’m not so concerned about the why in this case so much as whether life actually unfolds in a circle or not. Given my own observances of my life unfolding in front of me and how I have lived it, backed by the knowledge I had obtained I am willing to wager a circle is an accurate way of explaining how time and space unfold before us as human beings. Or in a broader context: as living organisms existing in this vast expanse known as the universe. Since this is how my journey in life unfolded, this is how I choose to tell my story. I am a work in progress. My journey had a starting point and is now spiraling, the path determined by a variety of factors: including how I choose to interact within it in the context I am in during that time period. There’s no telling what’s in store either. That’s what I think makes life so fascinating. Our stories never have a beginning or an end. We are the products of other people’s stories. If we are lucky, we are also players in the stories that come after us.