With New Year’s fast approaching, we are all in store for our usual turning-of-the clock epiphany. Suddenly, everything changes and, at that moment, we just know. Even though calendars are made up and dates are arbitrary, still, you will be convinced that the changing of that fourth number on the yearly clock somehow gives you superhuman willpower and insight.
People often think that an epiphany is a rhetorical device, like epistrophe or Epizeuxis. But it is not. Like all critical thinking shortcuts, it was made up by Christianity. An epiphany, as it appears in Matthew 2:1–2:12 is the manifestation of Christ to the Gentiles. It broadly means the manifestation of a divine being but has also come to mean, in the secular word, a sudden moment of clarity.
Epiphanies manifest themselves in our public discourse through the loathsome phrase, “and suddenly, everything changed.” I covered a version of the epiphany back in Episode 5 when I discussed the cliche “rock bottom moment” in the film Brittany Runs a Marathon. Another good episode of caution for all of you wannabe resolutionists (apparently not a word btw).
Epiphanies vs. Peripeteias
The thing about epiphanies is that they only work if you live in a world where there are, in fact, divine beings — in other words, a world with magic where genies grant wishes or the gods intervene to change the course of history. If you believe in divine miracles — not metaphorically but literally — then by all means, have at it.
But for those of us living in the secular world, epiphanies are a persuasive shortcut. Here’s why: a secular epiphany is essentially a total revolution of thought that happens instantaneously. You spend years believing or doing one thing, like overeating after dinner. You have an epiphany, like your New Year’s Resolution, and then you suddenly believe or do something totally different for the rest of your life.
That’s why in 2000 plus years rhetoric never added “epiphany” to its exhaustive list of persuasive strategies. Rhetoric is about the messy work of using language to persuade — an epiphany is a shortcut through all of that mess.
But rhetoric does have a version of the epiphany. It is called “peripeteia” and it means “a sudden reversal of fortune.”
It sounds like an epiphany — God shows up and suddenly reverses your fortune and now you don’t blow your unemployment check on hookers. But that’s your Christian brain thinking, not your pre-monotheism rhetorical brain working.
Peripeteia is NOT the moment when you suddenly started acting like a whole new person. That idea is incredibly modern. Capitalism loves that idea because it gets you to buy diet programs and online courses and home remodels and all kind of stuff hoping for your peripatetic moment. If I get the home remodel THEN I’ll be happy. A sudden reversal of fortune.
Prior to God and capitalism, people couldn’t have even believed that horse shit.
What they did believe in was fate. Fate could reverse your fortune. Call it luck or chance but essentially the reversal of fortune is an event that sets in motion the need for you to choose where you might not have had to choose before.
Movie example: Sliding Doors with Gwyneth Paltrow. She’s in a crap relationship and doesn’t know it in a crap job she thinks she likes. One day, she’s running for a train. The movie splits. Half the movie shows her life if she had made the train. The other half is her life if she had not made the train. Spoiler alert: in the version where she MAKES the train a lot of seemingly great stuff happens that ends up horrible in the end. In the version where she does NOT make the train a lot of seemingly awful stuff happens that ends up wonderful in the end.
The peripeteia is the moment she did not make the train. It’s the sudden reversal of fortune. It’s not what Paltrow’s character does or does not do in response.
And this is the big lesson about a peripeteia: you can notice them in hindsight. You can look back on your life and see these events that showed up and changed the course of your life. But you rarely know them when they happen. And some of the things we think are life shattering — 9/11, the COVID pandemic — may not be peripatetic at all. It’s all in how you think about it.
The peripeteia sets in motion an alternate course of events. It’s something that happens in the world. It has nothing to do with how YOU react.
When people tell stories and use the cliche “suddenly, everything changed” they’re almost always putting the peripeteia in the wrong place. Most people use it to mean the moment THEY changed in response to an event. In other words, they use it interchangeably with an epiphany. Example: “My mother died and suddenly everything changed.” Not really. Your mother dying may, indeed, have been a peripatetic event IF it also was a sudden reversal of fortune. But it’s highly unlikely that in the moment you “suddenly changed.” You probably got really sad, called into work, helped make funeral arrangements, got through the events with a blur, exhaustedly cleaned out her house, and eventually got back to your life. I know because that’s exactly what happened to me.
What, exactly, changed? Where’s the epiphany? Sure, over time you may have made different choices because of how you thought about the loss of your mother. I can say for sure that over the years I have been a little more brazen and a little less give-a-fuck because I saw how obedience and a life of service wound up for my dead mom. But that all happened in little tiny moments and small decisions. For the most part, I kept all of my bad habits, including people pleasing and putting up with shitty romantic relationships, because that’s what I had practiced for 30 years.
As a culture we hold tight to our epiphanies because, well, it’s easier than the reality which is that persuasion takes a lot of time, is usually incremental, and is very hard to trace. Who fucking knows exactly when you are persuaded to think something or do something new?
Maybe it’s going to be New Year’s 2021…maybe it’s not… it’s really in how you spend the year 2021 not the moment the clock changes.
I can tell you this before I wrap up: if you treat the New Year like an epiphany, your transformation is going to be short lived. And then, instead of doing the hard work, you’re going to be looking for the next epiphany to strike.