The Cycle

Lucian has a famous dialog called Icaromenippus where the narrator rips the wings off an eagle and a vulture and uses them to fly to the heavens. From the moon, he sees the world as comical, puny and ridiculous. He can hear philosophers inside their homes, doing what they thought no one could see, caring about the things they pontificate about disdaining. His conclusion is that life is a strange, confusing kaleidoscope of tiny dimensions. That people are like ants, fighting over bits of food and pieces of dirt.

While doing some research for a project Robert is working on, I came across a Google News timeline for stories on the topic of fear and the economy. I noticed something strange: every economic crises shows a big spike in stories like “the economics of fear” “fearful investors” “family on the brink.” The same stories for different disasters.

Particularly you see these spikes in 1990, in 2000, 2001 and in 2008 with the meltdown of the financial sector. Like nobody remembered writing the same exact piece ten years ago and bothered to check how it all worked out. You also see a rise in stories about the psychology of fear – how some study has shined new light on the brain’s response to loss and fear and uncertainty. As though the findings are the breakthrough explanation for why people are are feeling the way they are. But we know that since the latency period of an experiment is sometimes two or three years before publication, the only thing that mattered was the coincidental timing of the results.

A more basic example: Every year Southern California is wrecked by fires. Though they are never in Los Angeles and always end more or less with the same result, the news reports on them breathlessly like this is the one. My parents will call – “How about all these fires? Are they close by?” – as though we didn’t have this exact conversation the year before. Then a few weeks later, when the winds die down, it may as well have never even happened.

We just seem to accept this as the way things should be. We never ask: Who cares? Don’t you remember having this conversation last year? Don’t you remember how the fire ended last time? How you spent the next 11 months living peacefully in the city you were half-convinced was burning to the ground? Is it still as riveting when you realize even scientific studies are pandering to the spirit of the day? Or wonder how many equally valid ones passed you by because they didn’t happen to align with any subconscious feelings of current culture? These aren’t rhetorical questions, they deserve answers.

A fire burning a few hours away from your home, an economic crises, scientific discoveries. Without context, these are critical matters. In cycle or from afar, they are regular, meaningless bullshit events. They come, they go, we survive. The only thing that’s optional is the obnoxious chatter and speculation.

It’s not so fun when you think about it that way. In fact, to me, it mostly seems embarrassing whenever I get caught up in it. What Lucian eventually concluded that if we could get it straight from beginning; if we remembered that we’re going to die; that after a brief stay on earth we leave it like a dream and never return; we could live with more wisdom and fewer regrets. And we’d waste less time going around and around in this stupid cycle.

Written by Ryan Holiday
Ryan Holiday is the bestselling author of Trust Me, I’m Lying, The Obstacle Is The Way, Ego Is The Enemy, and other books about marketing, culture, and the human condition. His work has been translated into thirty languages and has appeared everywhere from the Columbia Journalism Review to Fast Company. His company, Brass Check, has advised companies such as Google, TASER, and Complex, as well as Grammy Award winning musicians and some of the biggest authors in the world. He lives in Austin, Texas.