Thinking in ‘seasons’ allows us to see systems at play that are disguised in the every day.
To every thing there is a season.- Ecclesiastes 3:1
When I first recalled this biblical quote, I remembered it as everything, not every thing. It’s a subtle, but profound difference and is noted in the song with the same subtitle by The Byrds. The first representation presumes that each thing has its purpose while the latter presumes meaning to specific periods, like seasons themselves.
As the mid-year solstice arrives, so does an opportunity to engage in the kind of deep reflection. The solstice has historically been a time of spiritual reflection and renewal for many cultures. In Canada, National Indigenous People’s Day is held at the same time, providing a reminder and celebration of those who are deeply connected to the land and have much to teach us about living in harmony with it.
What might this mean for our current season and what comes ahead?
The COVID-19 pandemic provides a unifying backdrop for our understanding of seasons given its complexity and global reach. Of course, much else is going as well and some of these things have allowed us to take our gaze away from the pandemic to other things.
Consider the United States where the attention on COVID-19 has taken a lost amid the myriad other things that surrounded that issue (e.g., anti-black racism actions, the arrival of summer, upcoming elections). While States were re-opening ahead of an anticipated ‘second wave’ of the virus the data suggested they hadn’t escaped the first. In Hong Kong, the matter of the coronavirus took place amid policy actions from China affecting its self-governance. In Russia, Vladimir Putin is holding a referendum in the coming week that may keep him in power until 2036.
Each of these examples points to ways in which we can get distracted from big issues because of other things that require or capture our attention. It’s also reasonable given the many months of physical and social distancing, isolation, and restriction that many of us have faced all while watching a global news cycle that resembled the film Groundhog Day. There’s more to life than a virus, but turning our attention away comes with present and future risks.
Taking a pause, we can start to see how and what we pay attention to (before we come back to seasons and the sun).
Volume, Velocity, Intensity, Time
Our awareness of change is influenced by four factors: volume, velocity, intensity, and time. This is one of the reasons the world took notice of COVID-19 in late February and early March, not December or January. The volume of cases was relatively low, not much was known about its velocity (spread, reproduction rate) and intensity (severity), which didn’t capture our attention and sense of timing.
That all changed, quickly as seen in the plot below featuring the most affected countries worldwide (as of June 24, 2020 – Johns Hopkins University).
But consider the future and the past (i.e., before COVID-19 arrived) as illustrated below. While we don’t know what is going to happen next to our economy, health systems, livelihoods, and social lives in the coming months, we can reframe what we’ve been experiencing since February as a season just as we turn to another.
That can offer us a surprising amount of benefits.
Seasons and Sun: Humans
Stonehenge (pictured above) is a monument to the sun. For thousands of years, the peoples residing in England have come to this monument to mark the sun’s journey and the longest (and shortest) days of the year. The rituals that have accompanied this marking have varied, but each year like clockwork (pun!) the pattern repeats.
Seasons have this ability to serve as a barometer of our world. From plant life to weather patterns to the flow of rivers and streams, seasons correspond with massive, but subtle changes in the natural world. Human beings do similar things with our annual holidays, depending upon the calendar that we use, and the place in the world where we live. Religious holidays like Ramadan, Passover, and Easter, or cultural festivals like Carnival, Oktoberfest, and the Calgary Stampede along with birthdays, calendar changes, and anniversaries over people and events all represent seasons.
What we are seeing this year is a remarkable confluence of patterns of seasonality – both the presence and absence of it — that is throwing things ‘off’. Followers of the Jewish, Muslim and Christian faiths all had to mark the aforementioned (highly social) holidays this year apart from one another. In my home of Toronto, this week was to be the Pride festival complete with parades, marches, and parties that will now largely be confined to small gatherings, many online. There’s no school graduation ceremonies, overnight summer camps, and no Olympics, either.
We need to look bigger and nature can help us do that.
Seasons and Sun: Nature
What nature provides us is a wider lens on our situation. Like the second graph above, it reminds us that there was a ‘Beforetimes’ that existed whether we celebrated a festival or not. One of the many reasons why humans have a hard time with change is that we struggle with the four factors above, particularly time. We also struggle with the perception of space — the dimensions of a problem.
Ceremony and ritual (pdf) can help provide markers for time and meaning for us. When those fail, we have seasons.
Making sense of complexity often requires that we understand what is most proximate to us before we can start looking at the wider system. Drawing lessons from the seasons puts that on its head to allow us to explore the largest, most universal systems to us.
By attending the rhythms and patterns of nature, we can calibrate ourselves to these systems around us and allow us to work more granular to create, instill, support, and nurture the kind of rituals, behaviours, and patterns that can shape things in the present. Rituals have tangible mental health benefits, performance benefits, and provide us with focus.
Get outside. Pay attention to the seasonal patterns around us and how nature responds to them. Watch the tide roll in and out. Notice the phases of the moon. All of these can help us to calibrate with where we are in larger cycles and patterns of change. By understanding these, it can prime ourselves to see systems, which can be applied to our more human systems.
This time — more than any in recent memory — we need our faculties to work for us. Much is overwhelming and still, nature persists. There’s a lesson in that.