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Suddenly Nothing Changed: Why Epiphanies are Cliche

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. 

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.

Not likely.

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. 

Biden’s “At that Moment,” Moment

Now as much as I love talking about my complex thoughts about my dead mother, I figure you could probably use a more relevant and assailable example. So, here is President-elect Joe Biden’s August 2020 speech at the Democratic National Convention. 

See if you can spot the epiphany….

History has thrust one more urgent task on us. Will we be the generation that finally wipes the stain of racism from our national character?

I believe we’re up to it.

I believe we’re ready.

Just a week ago yesterday was the third anniversary of the events in Charlottesville.

Remember seeing those neo-Nazis and Klansmen and white supremacists coming out of the fields with lighted torches?  Veins bulging? Spewing the same anti-Semitic bile heard across Europe in the ’30s?

Remember the violent clash that ensued between those spreading hate and those with the courage to stand against it?  

Remember what the president said? 

There were quote, “very fine people on both sides.“

It was a wake-up call for us as a country.

And for me, a call to action. At that moment, I knew I’d have to run. My father taught us that silence was complicity. And I could not remain silent or complicit.

At the time, I said we were in a battle for the soul of this nation. 

And we are.

Joe Biden, DNC address 2020

Did you spot the epiphany? It was the phrase, “at that moment, I knew…”

I pulled a bit of a bait and switch on you. “At that moment I knew” is cliche cousin to “suddenly everything changed.” They’re used pretty much interchangeably. And it’s really bad when they’re used together. Biden could have gone for the full “suddenly everything changed and at that moment I knew” but he spared us and just went with one.

So you’re trying to tell me that this guy was Vice President for EIGHT YEARS and then watched Clinton lose and then watched Trump take office and it never occurred to him until the summer of 2017, “I must run for President of the United States.”

No way. Without even doing any research, I know for sure that can’t be true. And the reason I know that is because Biden used a cliche to mark his moment of sudden realization. Whenever I hear the phrases “suddenly everything changed” or “at that moment I knew” then I immediately know that there is a layer of superficiality there. People resort to those phrases because they either don’t want or don’t think they should take the time to actually work through how their thoughts and behaviors ACTUALLY changed.

Cliches are always mental shortcuts that cover over all kinds of complexities about being a human. The epiphany, in particular, covers over the complexities of persuasion, of behavioral and intellectual change. 

Now I don’t know why Biden didn’t actually tell us about how he decided to run for President. I also don’t know that I care. It’s like, yeah, you were Vice President for 8 years, you probably have some good ideas. Watching Trump shit on the country for 4 years probably got your fucking motor going. You had a good chance of winning. The DNC liked you. So you ran for President. Makes sense. There’s no real need for an epiphany here because Biden running for President makes total sense.

It’d be like if you had gone to work as a banker every day for ten years. Then, on the morning of your eleventh year you woke up and said, “this morning I suddenly knew I needed to go to work.” It’s like, yeah, duh. Why wouldn’t you? Now, if you said, “this morning I suddenly knew I needed to be a dolphin trainer” then I’d understand the need for an epiphany. And, because it’s a drastic change of behavior that demanded the epiphany, I would need a LITTLE more information than just, “I woke up this morning and everything changed” because no one’s brain works like that.

And, as it turns out, Biden not only was probably thinking about running for President the MINUTE he thought about running for VP, he actually was thinking about it in 1988. 1988. Here’s the New York Times discussing what they call Biden’s “disastrous” 1988 bid

“The next president of the United States: Joe Biden.”

It’s June 9 1987 and then-Senator Joseph R Biden Jr. has just entered the presidential race. Look familiar? The 2020 race is Biden’s third attempt at the Oval Office. He first ran for president 32 years ago. For those who may have forgotten or weren’t around in 87, here’s what happened. 

Biden started off as a strong Contender. “Senator Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delwarare.” But his campaign was mired with some early blunders, like this one: “What law school did you attend and where did you place in that class?” “Who cares?” “I think I probably have a much higher IQ than you do, I suspect.” And he exaggerated his academic record in law school. “I went back to law school and in fact ended up in the top half of my class.” And then there were moments like this, repeated later during the campaign. When I marched in the Civil Rights movement, I marched with tens of thousands of others to change attitudes.” But he never actually marched in the Civil Rights Movement at all. Ultimately it was accusations of plagiarism in his speeches–”I did not know that was Robert Kennedy quote”–that forced him to drop out of the race. “I made some mistakes.” 

“Young, Brash and Reckless,” New York Times

We have now learned two things. One: Biden didn’t have an epiphany during Charlottesville. He may have had his conviction renewed or been re-reminded of his mission or been given a renewed charge or whatever but have an epiphany he did not. 

Two: we get a better understanding of what the epiphany cliche is doing for Biden. The epiphany recast Biden’s obvious lifelong interest in being the big P with social justice. Now, this strategy makes a lot of sense. We know that race politics were a deciding factor. We know that Biden’s appeal to non-white voters was a real area of concern. Of course Biden is going to want to bring up his commitment to inclusion and enfranchisement for Black Americans as often as he can. 

That’s just a good strategy. UNTIL Biden uses a lazy-ass cliche to make the connection to racial justice. THEN he comes across as manipulative. And the epiphany gets WORSE when you hear some of Biden’s backstory about fibbing about being part of the civil rights march. And then it gets WORSER… when you take into account the weird stuff he said about ‘being loved by the Blacks’.

So the epiphany that Biden hopes will give you this sudden inspirational smack in the face about his love for Black America does quite the opposite. He would have been SIGNIFICANTLY better off actually having taken the time to really explain the twisty turny connections between racial justice and his bid for presidency. 

And to really add icing on the cliche cake, Biden actually goes on in his DNC speech to precisely NOT use an epiphany, proving he’s perfectly capable of not taking the mental shortcut. Here’s the piece that comes right after his Charlottesville moment:

One of the most important conversations I’ve had this entire campaign is with someone who is too young to vote.

I met with six-year old Gianna Floyd, a day before her Daddy George Floyd was laid to rest.

She is incredibly brave. 

I’ll never forget.

When I leaned down to speak with her, she looked into my eyes and said “Daddy, changed the world.“

Her words burrowed deep into my heart.

Maybe George Floyd’s murder was the breaking point.

Maybe John Lewis’ passing the inspiration.

However it has come to be, America is ready to in John’s words, to lay down “the heavy burdens of hate at last” and to do the hard work of rooting out our systemic racism.

Joe Biden, DNC Address 2020

Notice the difference here. Before, it was all about certainty. “I saw Charlottesville, and I just knew…” as if your brain just has an on/off switch and that is how it makes decisions.

But after his encounter with Floyd’s daughter, it’s MAYBE. Maybe Floyd’s murder was the breaking point. Maybe John Lewis’ dying was the inspiration.

In case you don’t know, John Lewis was a Civil Rights leader and Black politician from Georgia who died of cancer a few weeks before Biden’s address.

Now we can say what we will about Biden name-dropping dead Black men to make his bid for the presidency. Certainly it feels a little cringey–also it would have felt equally as cringey for him NOT to do it. 

But what I’m focused on is that Biden ditches the epiphanies in this part of the speech and instead puts the peripeteia back where it belongs–in the events that happen outside of us. 

Is Floyd’s murder a peripeteia, an intervention of fate, a sudden reversal of fortune? Maybe. Biden essentially leaves it open to possibility because it’s only going to BE a reversal of fortune if something gets done about it. THAT is not cliche. That is very astute. That is how life works. The events happen but their significance is in how we think and act about them–as Biden says, the “hard work” of rooting out systemic racism. That’s why the John Lewis quote is helpful here.

Events don’t just happen and then lightning bolts of inspiration strike us from the sky. That’s why an epiphany is a cliche–because it’s a shortcut. It keeps us from doing the work

I mean….really think about these phrases that we’re using all of the time. “Suddenly everything changed.” “At that moment I knew.” Do they feel right to you? Is that how your life works? 

“That was the moment I knew, she was the one for me.” Oh really? And then what about six weeks later when you caught her clipping her toenails in the bedroom. Was she the one for you then?

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. 

But if you treat the New Year like a peripeteia–an event that presents the opportunity for a sudden reversal of fortune–you may have better luck. At the very least, you can ditch the epiphanies moving forward. If you want to inspire or be inspired, figure out how change happens and learn how to explain that thoughtfully to other people.

rhetoriclee
rhetoriclee

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