Another year is almost gone. We entered it with such relief at putting 2020 behind us. Instead, 2021 has brought crisis after crisis, from insurrection to Omicron.
Are we living in the dark times between two periods of joy? It’s an archetypal pattern: the malaise between nostalgia and hope, the trials between “once upon a time” and “happily ever after,” the Dark Ages between the Roman Empire and the Renaissance, the sinful world between Eden and the Second Coming. We humans evolved to see patterns whether or not they exist. They help us make meaning and, sometimes, notice causal connections.
They can also entice us to put too much trust in our predictions. History does indeed repeat itself, at least in broad patterns. With the entire recorded human past to draw on, a diligent search can uncover examples of nearly any pattern you choose. For every trauma between two golden ages, you can find an era of new optimism between two traumas: Reconstruction before Jim Crow, the French Revolution before the Terror, the early years of independence for former African colonies and former Soviet republics before some fell into chaos.
Choose your patterns with care. They may make the difference between despair and hope.
I'm a historian who writes novels and literary nonfiction. My home base is Madison, Wisconsin.