Order is a place of safety, familiarity and predictability.
As human beings we crave order. Order is the familiar route home, the set routine, patterns, cycles, templates, traditions and solvable equations. In short, order is all that is known.
Chaos is a place of unfamiliarity and unpredictability.
Chaos is utilised by story tellers, movie makers and circus performers. Mythology, story, and religion take our hand as we journey by way of the known, into the unknown.
Story, performance, art and ritual have their own rules (orders), to guide us through the portal between order and chaos. Interestingly, in the Catholic church monks and nuns belong to Holy (orders) and wear their (habits) as outward signs of their obedience.
Indeed, one function of religious ritual is to facilitate safe passage between order and chaos so that individuals can live a life that is both chaotic enough to be meaningful and ordered enough to be fruitful.
But although we crave order, we are also curiously compelled toward chaos.
That is because chaos is the place of transformation and change. It is the place of the unknown because change, by its very nature is unfamiliar. Without change there can be no progression and growth and where there is no progression and growth there is stagnation and death. There is death in chaos too of course. All change has a piece of loss in it but the death that occurs in transformation gives birth to renewed life. Autumn trees speak of this kind of change, as do the chrysalis of caterpillars. What seems chaotic in nature is underwritten by an elegant design. A bit like how random, and inexhaustible dendritic variations grow from the basic hexagonal pattern of a snowflake.
Thoughtless and impulsive change is reckless. Most revolutions lead to chaos and destruction. With such chaos there is no creative force. This kind of chaos is recognisable because what comes in its wake is perverted order and tyranny. The rise of fascism following WWI is a tragic example of this, as is the rise of totalitarianism in Russia and France after both countries dispensed with their monarchy.
As conservatives rightly warn, the process of change is dangerous even when necessary. Too much sudden, change can throw the baby out with the bath water. But of course, it is easier to be conservative when you are comfortable. If the status quo provides well for you why rock the boat? Those already disenfranchised, on the other hand, have nothing to lose. The French revolution occurred because the elite were so out of touch they couldn’t see the tipping point. Stable conservatism can only be achieved when there is investment (and not just economic investment) in marginalised communities. A healthy middle class underpins a stable society. It replenishes, is abundant and happy to reinvest its surplus. It isn’t protectionist and self protecting as illustrated in the poem “Middle Class” at the bottom of this post. Society that can use chaos to initiate creative rather than destructive change while conserving the best practices of the previous order.
The story of Theseus in the Labyrinth offers counsel on this. Before Theseus ventures into the Minotaur’s cave, (chaos) he makes sure he keeps hold of Ariadne’s thread, the link to ( the previous order).
Being an unknown country, chaos may be understood to be our unconscious mind.
As children, we were afraid of what might be lurking under our beds, or in our wardrobes at night. Our mind invented terrible things, filling the void with all possible unknowns. Our unconscious contains all the unknowns of our conscious mind.
In William Golding’s classic The Lord of the Flies, the “beast” on the island symbolises the lost certainties of civilisation. The beast is a collective shadow. Like Beowulf’s Grendel, it lurks in the murky depths of the uncharted jungle of the island. In reality it is the suppressed savage within the boys which when finally unleashed results in merciless slaughter.
Carl Jung believed that dreams including nightmares were messages from the unconscious to the conscious mind and that this dialogue frames our sense of reality.
Our brains have an inbuilt strategy for making order out of chaos.
Iain Mcgilchrist describes how the left hemisphere of the human brain uses filters to process the magnitude of sensory material (taken in by the right hemisphere) material that would otherwise overwhelm us. We order, categorise and label to simplify life so we can function more effectively. These broad brushstrokes are economical though they undermine the rich tapestries of deeper truth. We could perhaps understand the left hemisphere to be imposing order upon the chaos of the right hemisphere. Too much imposed order though and creativity and complexity are lost. Too much chaos and we just can’t function. A balance must be struck.
Our modern world has probably been primarily cast from left brain, “ordered” thinking. The negative impact of left brain dominance has led to stifling bureaucracy, over production, systemic atheism, fundamentalism, dictatorships and too much focus on dogma and ritual for dogma and rituals sake rather than as vehicles for transformation and transcendence.
Below are some literary examples that describe order, chaos and the creativity and transfiguration that can happen when a balance between the two is struck.
Middle Class – Hans Magnus Enzensberger
We can’t complain.
We’re not out of work.
We don’t go hungry.
The grass grows,
the social product,
The streets are empty.
The deals are closed.
The sirens are silent.
All that will pass.
The dead have made their wills.
The rain’s become a drizzle.
The war’s not yet been declared.
There’s no hurry for that.
We eat the grass.
We eat the social product.
We eat the fingernails.
We eat the past.
We have nothing to conceal.
We have nothing to miss.
We have nothing to say.
The watch has been wound up.
The bills have been paid.
The washing-up has been done.
The last bus is passing by.
It is empty.
We aren’t complaining.
What are we waiting for?
The City of Saba – Rumi
There is a glut of wealth in the city of Saba. Everyone has more than enough. Even the bath stokers wear gold belts. Huge grape clusters hang down on every street and brush the faces of the citizens. No one has to do anything. You can balance a basket on your head and walk through an orchard, and it will fill by itself with overripe fruit dropping into it. Stray dogs stray in lanes full of thrown-out scraps with barely a notice. The lean desert wolf gets indigestion from the rich food. Everyone is fat and satiated with all the extra. There are no robbers. There is no energy for crime, or for gratitude, and no one wonders about the unseen world. The people of Saba feel bored with just the mention of prophecy. They. have no desire of any kind. Maybe some idle curiosity about miracles, but that’s it. This overrichness is a subtle disease. Those who have it are blind to what’s wrong and deaf to anyone who points it out. The city of Saba cannot be understood from within itself! But there is a cure, an individual medicine, not a social remedy: sit quietly, and listen for a voice within that will say, Be more silent. As that happens, your soul starts to revive. Give up talking and your positions of power. Give up the excessive money. Turn toward teachers and prophets who don’t live in Saba. They can help you grow sweet again and fragrant and wild and fresh and thankful for any small event.
An Extract from Lord of the Flies – William Golding
“The pigs lay, bloated bags of fat, sensuously enjoying the shadows under the trees. There was no wind and they were unsuspicious; and practice had made Jack silent as shadows. He stole away again and instructed his hidden hunters. Presently they all began to inch forward sweating in the silence and heat. Under the trees an ear flapped idly. A little apart from the rest sunk in deep maternal bliss, lay the largest sow of the lot. She was black and pink; and the great bladder of her belly was fringed with a row of piglets that slept or burrowed and squeaked. Fifteen yards from the drove Jack stopped; and his arm, straightening, pointed at the sow. He looked round in inquiry to make sure everyone understood and the other boys nodded at him. The row of right arms slid back.
The drove of pigs started up; and at a range of only ten yards the wooden spears with fire-hardened points flew towards the chosen pig. One piglet, with a demented shriek, rushed into the sea trailing Roger’s spear behind it. The sow gave a gasping squeal and staggered up, with two spears sticking in her fat flank. The boys shouted and rushed forward, the piglets scattered and the sow burst the advancing line and went crashing away through the forest.
They raced along the pig-track, but the forest was too dark and tangled so that JAck, cursing, stopped them and cast among the trees. Then he said nothing for a long time but breathed fiercely so that they were awed by him and looked at each other in uneasy admiration. Presently he stabbed down at the ground with his finger.
Before the others could examine the drop of blood, Jack had swerved off, judging a trace, touching a bough that gave. So he followed, mysteriously right and assured; and the hunters trod behind him.
He stopped before a covert.
They surrounded the covert but the sow got away with the string of another spear in her flank. The trailing butts hindered her and the sharp, cross-cut points were a torment. She blundered into a tree, forcing a spear still deeper; and after that the hunters could follow her easily by the drops of vivid blood. The afternoon wore on, hazy and dreadful with damp heat; the sow staggered her way ahead of them, bleeding and mad, and the hunters followed, wedded to her in lust, excited by the long chase and the dropped blood. They could see her now, nearly got up with her, but she spurted with her last strength and held ahead of them again, /they were just behind her when she staggered into an open space where bright flowers grew and butterflies danced round each other and the air was hot and still.
Here, struck down by the heat, the sow fell and the hunters hurled themselves at her. This dreadful eruption from an unknown world made her frantic; she squealed and bucked and the air was full of sweat and noise and blood and terror. Roger ran round the head, prodding with his spear whenever pigflesh appeared. Jack was on top of the sow, stabbing downward with his knife. Roger found a lodgement for his point and began to push till he was leaning with his whole weight. The spear moved forward inch by inch and the terrified squealing became a high pitched scream. Then Jack found the throat and the hot blood spouted over his hands. The sow collapsed under them and they were heavy and fulfilled upon her. The butterflies still danced, preoccupied in the centre of the clearing.
At last the immediacy of the kill subsided. The boys drew back, and Jack stood up, holding out his hands.
He giggled and flinked them while the boys laughed at his reeking palms. Then Jack grabbed Maurice and rubbed the stuff over his cheeks. Roger began to withdraw his spear and the boys noticed it for the first time. Robert stabilised the thing in a phrase which was received uproariously.
“Right up her ass!”
“Did you hear?”
Did you hear what he said?”
Right up her ass!”
The Swing – Kabir (translated by Robert Bly)
Between the conscious and the unconscious, the mind has put up a swing:
all earth creatures, even the supernovas, sway between these two trees,
and it never winds down.
Angels, animals, humans, insects by the million, also the wheeling sun and moon;
ages go by, and it goes on.
Everything is swinging: heaven, earth, water, fire,
and the secret one slowly growing a body.
Kabir saw that for fifteen seconds, and it made him a servant for life.
The Hymn of Jesus from the acts of John
I want to be saved … and I want to save. Amen.
I want to be set free … and I want to free. Amen.
I want to be born … and I want to give birth. Amen.
I want to hear … and I want to be heard.
Sweetness dances. I want to pipe; all of you dance. Amen.
I want to run away … and I want to stay. Amen.
I want to make you beautiful … and I want to be beautiful.
I want to join with you … and I want to be joined. Amen.
I have no house … and I have houses. Amen.
I have no ground … and I have ground. Amen.
I have no temple … and I have temples. Amen.
If you look at me … I will be a lamp. Amen.
If you see me … I will be a mirror. Amen.
If you knock on me … I will be a door. Amen.
If you are a traveller … I will be a road. Amen.
This is my dance … Answer me with dancing.