Higher Living Reflections

The Circadian Rhythm of Culture

There is no logical reason for there being seven days in a week. Considering most months have thirty days, a week with a multiple of thirty—five, six, or ten—days would be more logical. But then, a thirty-day month is illogical. A twenty-eight one correlating to the moon’s cycle would be more apropos. If that were the case, a seven-day week would make sense since seven is a multiple of twenty-eight.

In The Discoverers: A History of Man’s Search to Know His World and Himself, Daniel Boorstin explored the origination of the seven-day week along with a plethora of other peculiarities and happenstances, which originated in ancient cultures’ practices and customs. The Greeks, the most reasoned-based and scientific-oriented ancient culture, did not follow a week. The Babylonians’ “week” was haphazard since they correlated their months and year with the lunar cycles rather than the sun.

The Romans originally had an eight-day week, which would have made the Beatles song. “Eight Days a Week,” more comprehensible if it had been released during the Roman Republic. In time though, the Romans got in step with their empire and adopted the seven-day week, which fit very nicely with the total of the five known planets plus the sun and moon, all of which they considered as gods. The Romance languages—Spanish, French, Italian—continued that tradition, except for Sunday, which they renamed for The Lord. In English, we have held more closely to Norse mythology, at least for the weekdays.

Boorstin described how a couple revolutionary nations—French, Russian—tried to refashion the calendar to make it work better, but in time both returned to the classical format. It was a lesson learned. Despite being able to overturn the societal apple cart in multiple ways, messing with the calendar was taboo.

In American culture, Monday traditionally started the work week, Wednesday was hump day, Friday for happy hour. The weekend was for rest, church, and football. And despite how many now have the capability to work from home within flexible time frames, that cultural flow seems etched in our national consciousness.

Sunday, however, has a power like no other day. It tends to be an upbeat, sacred day, religiously and secularly. But not for all. Kris Kristofferson’s “Sunday Morning Coming Down” captures that. It is a dirge, amplified by Johnny Cash’s mournful, baritone tenor. There is something about a Sunday, Johnny sings, that can make a body feel alone. But why Sunday? Why, like no other day, can Sunday beget such forlorn emptiness and near despair? Why not “Tuesday Morning Coming Down”? What are the psychic elements that elicit such emotions?

Circadian comes from the Latin circa diem, meaning “about a day,” and the circadian rhythm is natural to all organisms: plant and animal. Note how nocturnal animals lie low during the day and certain flowers such as morning glories open with the dawn and then close. That natural rhythm extends beyond daily routines to seasonal. Hibernation and rutting, for example. But there is also a cultural and social rhythm to human life infused within the psyche.

I don’t feel like the guy in “Sunday Morning Coming Down” fumbling for his cleanest dirty shirt, but, due to my upbringing, I can identify with the pathos he exhibits as he watches a kid kicking a can and hears a lonely bell echoing through the canyons of the sleeping city streets.

It is September and the autumnal equinox is nigh. That means back to school in my mind even though I no longer go back to school. After I formally retired, I quipped that every day was a Friday, but I now realize it will take more than a formal separation from teaching to break my psychic ties to the school week. In addition to the changing leaves and the kickoff of the football season, I know fall is in the air when I watch kiddos onboard yellow school buses—aka cheese wagons per my high school students.

Boorstin holds that the purpose of a time scheme is to hold a people together. That’s good to know. While we might be at serious odds about social, political, and religious issues, at least we can agree on which day of the week it is. Unless, of course, for those for whom everyday is a Friday, so named for Freya or Frigg, depending on which mythological source you reference, who loved having a fun time. Monday through Thursday have lost their power in terms of professional demands and flows, but after these years, happy hour most fittingly still begins at 4:00 and Friday feels the correct day to meet a friend to celebrate one.

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  • Virginia White
    September 17, 2021 at 3:06 pm

    Always enjoy the things you have to say. Thanks!

  • Donna Taylor
    September 18, 2021 at 9:51 pm

    So interesting to explore the origins of the time scheme we are born into and seldom reflect on. Thanks for integrating your thoughts on this. At some point as very young children we become aware of how it all works. At that point we stop experiencing life only in the present. I remember the point where this changed for me when I was looking at a local TV schedule and realized that I could know when a favorite show would be shown on a future day. I try to imagine what animals experience not knowing our calendar and having their own time set. I’m reading Boorstin’s book -The Creators- more good insights.

  • Becky Cook
    September 21, 2021 at 1:13 pm

    Once again you give me new food for thought… the meaning of the days have evolved for me as my life as evolved.
    Restaurant work made the weekends my busiest work days… then the years that my life revolved around the school bus schedule and soccer games… is interesting to think back on it all. Thanks for the prompt. 😊