Deep Unraveling: Waiting for a Crisis

I suppose this train of thought begins with “Heroes of the Fourth Turning,” which is a play I’ve actually never seen (but want to, obviously). It was the name of that play that made me eagerly pick up a book I saw on a student’s bookshelf: The Fourth Turning: An American Prophecy by William Strauss and Neil Howe. These two authors, writing in the late 1990’s, studied patterns of world and American history and predicted that a Crisis would happen around the early 2000’s. This Crisis, also called the Fourth Turning, would usher in a new era of peace and stability as Americans would emerge from it with a shared set of values and beliefs. I’ll explain further below, but here’s my thesis: we haven’t had that Crisis yet, and we’re long overdue. As such, we are in what I’ve (presumptuously) dubbed a “deep unraveling:” a period in which we Americans are culturally mired in our pursuit of our own personal pleasures and are unable to set those aside to pursue a common good.

Howe and Strauss are arguing for a cyclical view of history, admitting the persistence of general trends through different cycles. They contrast this (incorrectly, I think) with the Christian view, which is linear. We Christians see history with a distinct beginning (Creation), defining moment (Incarnation) and end (Second Coming). These two authors, however, argue that history is broken into recurring cycles like the revolutions of a great wheel. (I find these two views totally reconcilable, but I’m going to leave that for another discussion). In each cycle, there are four distinct phases or, as they say, “Turnings.” Thus, the Arberian “Fourth Turning” is simply the last phase of a recurring cycle. Without further ado, here’s the cycle, paraphrased by yours truly:

  1. The First Turning is called a “High.” It’s characterized by cultural unity and institutional strength. In order to achieve that unity, personal differences are mitigated and ignored. The most recent High that America has experienced is the postwar period.
  2. The Second Turning is the “Awakening.” As a new generation rises, they see flaws in institutions and feel oppressed by the mitigation of difference that gave the First Turning its unity. During the Second Turning, people begin to look inwards for fulfillment. This manifests itself in spiritual awakenings of varying credibility. The most recent Second Turning is bookmarked by the hippy movement of the 1960’s and 70’s.
  3. The Third Turning is the “Unraveling.” As the name suggests, the unity achieved in the First Turning now comes radically undone. People pursue their personal pleasures as their fulfillment. The culture loses a sense of purpose, and people actually become incapable of unifying themselves because they do not have the impetus necessary to cause them to shuck their personal pleasures for a greater good.
  4. The Fourth Turning is the “Crisis.” The Crisis is a time when a society recognizes a threat as dire. “Great worldly perils boil off the clutter and complexity of life, leaving behind one simple imperative: The society must prevail.” (103). This usually culminates in total war.

Strauss and Howe trace this cycle of four turnings all the way back through the 15th century, only admitting a break or discrepancy very occasionally. I’m not going to restate their entire argument here; let it suffice to say they trace a sort of pattern through the past several centuries. Their main point, though, is this:

  1. America’s most recent First Turning began with the Stock Market Crash of 1929, lasted through the Great Depression, and ended with the closing of World War Two.
  2. America’s most recent Second Turning is notorious for the hippie movement, liberal drug use, and the free love movement. It began in 1964 and lasted until 1984.
  3. Strauss and Howe mark the beginning of the Third Turning at 1984. It’s characterized by a burst of optimism that quickly sours. In 1984, Regan won the presidential election by a landslide, but the optimism didn’t last long.
  4. Each Turning lasts about 20 years. Thus, the Fourth Turning should have begun at the turn of the millennium.

Contrary to their expectations, it didn’t. Strauss and Howe wrote this book in the late 1990’s. They predicted a Crisis in the next five to ten years, but that simply hasn’t happened. Thus, we find ourselves in an abnormally protracted Third Turning, a claim that seems to be supported by current events. Remember, our authors define an Unraveling as a period in which members of a society are deeply divided by pursuit of personal pleasure rather than common good. Comparing it to an autumnal period, they state:

Unraveling eras reflect a social mood that has become newly personal, pragmatic, and insecure. These are times of buccaneers and barnstormers, of courtly intrigue and treacherous alliances, of civil unrest and boom and bust markets. Contrasts abound- between the rich and poor, the garish and the sober, the sacred and the profane. People act out, welcoming conflict while disdaining consensus. All relationships seem in flux, all loyalties in doubt, all outcomes chancy. Society fragments into centrifugal parts, with small-scale loyalties rising amid the sinking tangle of civilization.

Strauss, William and Neil, Howe, The Fourth Turning: An American Prophecy. New York: Broadway Books, 1997. 208-209.

This seems to describe our current society almost perfectly. We’re not in the Fourth Turning yet; we’re an entire cycle out of date. This is significant because the Turnings are inextricably linked with generational cycles. Just as Strauss and Howe divide Turnings into four groups, they also argue that generations follow a cycle of four parts. Thus, every generation has its own archetypal title and persona: Heroes (young adults during a Crisis), Artists, (young adults during a High), Prophets (young adults during an Awakening), and Nomads (young adults during an Unraveling).

Let’s do some quick math. Our parents were mostly born during the Awakening (1964-1984). According to the pattern, they are a Nomad generation. Their formative years take place during an Unraveling. We their children are supposed to be Heroes; our formative years are supposed to take place during a Crisis. However, “the Hero archetype is made, not born (211),” that is, made by a Crisis that hasn’t happened. Thus, I maintain that we are a bizarre extensions of our parents’ Nomad generation, not Heroes. To further this claim, let me quote the text as it describes a Nomad generation’s coming-of-age:

Nomads come of age in a society strong in choices and judgements but weak in structure, guidance, or any sense of collective mission for young people. Lacking a generational core, they are defined by their very social and cultural divergence. Aware that elder leaders don’t expect much from them as a group, they feel little collective mission or power. Yet their accelerated contact with the real world gives them strong survival skills and expectations of personal success. Acting as individuals, they take entrepreneurial risks and begin sorting themselves into winners and losers. Their culture develops a frenetic, hardened quality, provoking next-elder Prophets to accuse them of lacking a principled inner life. Young Nomads shake off these criticisms and do what they must to get by.

Ibid. 210.

I wouldn’t argue that this describes us perfectly, but it’s not supposed to either. We aren’t “supposed” to be Nomads, according to this theory. That being said, it certainly describes us better than Heroes of a Crisis. We simply aren’t, because there’s no Crisis yet. There’s no battle to be fought. Instead, given that an Unraveling is an ongoing process that doesn’t stop until a Crisis comes, we are in a deeply Unraveled time. We are cynical. Our institutions are weak or destroyed. We have no strong guidance or sense of purpose. There’s also an air of unreality around, since we’re simply waiting around for the proverbial bomb to fall. Personally, I find myself longing for that moment: when something real can actually be achieved.

I don’t anticipate much argument against my claim that we live in a time of unreality. Our president, a world leader, is clearly frail and senile. Our bishops are largely weak and apologetic. In other words, those who are supposed to be leaders are uninspiring and don’t even appear to believe in the institutions they lead. Is it any wonder we’re cynical? Still, that’s no excuse for inactivity. We must try to unmask this charade, even if we’re doomed to failure. Are we? In a certain sense, yes. We can’t stop the Unraveling. Only a Crisis involving total war can do that. But what we can do is strengthen our “small scale loyalties” so that when the Crisis comes, we’re ready to fight or undergo persecution. It doesn’t seem like a glorious fate, but it seems like the one we were born into. Here’s to you, bastard Nomads. I don’t know what success looks like for us, but we’re meant for something. Let’s get to work, and maybe we’ll find out what that is.

Post Script: I’m only mentioning Will Arbery’s play as an introduction. I don’t think he’s calling us Heroes of the Fourth Turning, unless he’s being ironic because he thinks we think of ourselves as that. Will, if you read this I’d love to hear your thoughts on it. Write a guest piece. It’ll catapult your fame to new heights.

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