Don James McLaughlin is an assistant professor of English at TU. In this essay, McLaughlin explores the multi-faceted word “recovery,” and asks us to reconsider the notion that recovery has two separate parts—a before and an after.
Some words in the English language wear many hats. “Recovery” is one of these words. It is polysemous, meaning it comprises a plethora of divergent but also related senses, each emanating from a common idea. At its core, recovery invokes a two-part plot: something has been lost and is now retrieved. For astronomers, the connotation is visual, referring to “observation” of a planetary body “following an extended period” of invisibility (OED). Zoologists use the word to account for “recapture” of an animal tagged for research (OED). The stakes are high in American football, where recovery after a fumble can mean either possession regained or lost. The word encompasses a host of subjective states too. A comedian or politician may (or may not) recover from a poorly delivered one-liner. A recent acquaintance can do their best to recover from a faux pas on a first date.
This last example tells us something about the charm intrinsic to the occasion for recovery. A mild embarrassment on a date followed by a clever restoration of the mood can be endearing. Indeed, the awkwardness resolved into a state of good humor might end up being the most memorable origin story for how a relationship got started. We admire the determination it takes to find one’s momentarily shaken bearing. As Ralph Waldo Emerson writes, “Valor consists in the power of self-recovery, so that a man cannot have his flank turned, cannot be out-generalled, but put him where you will, he stands.”
Yet this concept of self-recovery is also where the term’s most complex and variable orientation yields ambivalence: its orientation to time, its temporality. To imagine the ideal self as something requiring recovery risks confining the self in a prior version, a defunct form clinging to the comfort of stagnation. Must recovery invite a backward stance? Is it always the mistake of an Orpheus, bartering a desired future for a glimpse behind?
Emerson’s interest in self-recovery takes a different temporal shape. The quote above appears in “Circles” (1841), an essay probing the cyclical nature of existence. “The eye is the first circle; the horizon which it forms is the second; and throughout nature this primary picture is repeated without end,” Emerson begins. “Our life is an apprenticeship to the truth that around every circle another can be drawn; that there is no end in nature, but every end is a beginning; that there is always another dawn risen on mid-noon, and under every deep a lower deep opens.” Two fallacies fall away in the same breath. To trust only the presumed familiarity of the past is to reject the essence of life: “[T]here is no sleep, no pause, no preservation, but all things renew, germinate and spring.” So too would it be a mistake to pursue the future as a linear untethering of the present from what has come before it. “The new position of the advancing man has all the powers of the old,” Emerson insists, “yet has them all new. It carries in its bosom all the energies of the past, yet is itself an exhalation of the morning.”
What changes when we configure recovery in the shape of a circle? Some of recovery’s most salient valences I have yet to mention: healing in the context of illness or injury, economic rebound after a recession, collective recuperation in the wake of unexpected crisis. If we approach recovery as a yearning for an antecedent order of things, we are likely to be disappointed. Such an approach is a missed opportunity. For Emerson, “Life is a series of surprises. We do not guess to-day the mood, the pleasure, the power of tomorrow, when we are building up our being.” The ever-unfolding circles we draw remind us that the past—our history, our heritage, our triumphs—are not disconnected from this movement. Their purpose expands when, enfolded within ourselves, they accompany us on the curve of a new opening.