science of us

What Comes After a Rut?

Photo: Meyers/Wikicommons

There’s an old blog post that’s been going around this week, from the writer and web developer Michael Barrish. In it, he proposed that good things move in a cycle: Good Thing, Rut, Transition, and around again. A good thing becomes a rut, which then goes through a transition to eventually become a new and different good thing. The visual it gives me is of an endless looping spiral, moving off in one direction or another.

“When a scientist makes what is recognized as an important discovery or breakthrough,” Barrish wrote, “this is perceived as a Good Thing. But then the discovery or breakthrough inevitably becomes a kind of dogma or Rut. This is followed by a period of Transition until someone makes a new discovery, creating a new Good Thing.” This brings to mind the developing attitude toward the concept of willpower, for instance — traditionally, willpower was considered simple and morally essential, then it was considered maybe a limited resource, and recently the idea of people being “good at willpower” has been reconsidered entirely.

The idea of a three-point progression through life phases, though, seems sort of consistent. The Good Thing–Rut–Transition theory reminds me of the “ratchet, hatchet, pivot” model of technological and cultural development, presented by Columbia ecology professor Ruth DeFries in her 2014 book The Big Ratchet: How Humanity Thrives in the Face of Natural Crisis. Her theory is that an exciting new development (a ratchet upward) is eventually followed by a cry for change (the hatchet), after which there’s a cultural pivot, and then another ratchet upward, to another new development. (I picked that up not from reading DeFries’s book, but from David Brooks’s mention of it in his new book, The Second Mountain.)

The Good Thing theory also reminds me of another concept, posted last year on Cup of Jo — the theory of the “Second Act” in romantic encounters. (Or, “A Realization That Changed My Dating Life.”) In relationships, when things start to get weird, as writer Caroline Donofrio puts it, we have entered Act Two. It’s not as fun as the first act, when everything was great, or as clear as the third, when certain things become resolved. (I’m guessing this means a breakup, a marriage, a baby, or some other development or understanding.) “Whether it lasts for a day or a decade,” she writes, “the second act slump has many names: a low point, a breakdown, rock bottom. You know it when you’re in it.” And then, after this, the “clarity” and “sigh of relief” offered by a third act, whatever it might be. I’d add to this, though, that unless there’s a breakup, after a third act comes another first act — the beginning of a new phase, within the same relationship.

The three-point pattern and the implied universality of slumps, ruts, and interminable confusing phases are themselves comforting. Good things don’t become new good things right away — first there is the awkward Rut, and then, with effort, the lurching Transition. “Rut and Transition” has also begun to sound kind of sexual, which is in fact where the original post also ends up:

I think the truth of the matter is closer to Good Thing, Rut Rut Rut Rut Rut Rut Rut Rut Rut, Good Thing, Rut Rut Rut Rut Rut Rut Rut Rut Rut …

But this then reminds me of something else: “The nine shallow, one deep rhythm delights your partner. The vacuum has tremendous effect: she feels empty then full, empty then full. This pause pleases because you constantly refresh her senses with change. When we eat our fill, we want no more. But one delicious taste increases desire. We satisfy then stimulate desire. We create desire then renew satisfaction.” —Mantak Chia, Taoist Secrets of Love

What Comes After a Rut?