How to navigate between order and chaos
In the beginning, there was chaos. According to Greek mythology, the universe began as an abyss. There was no matter, no light, no life or consciousness outside of this primordial chasm. Yet out of this very void, known as Chaos, sprung not only the Titans (and later the gods of Olympus) but existence itself. Order and chaos have thus been eternally linked. Chaos is a place where everything is complex and unpredictable; order is where things are so rigid that it’s repetitive and restrictive. Navigating between the two, it is possible to find a meaningful place where you’re partly stabilized and partly curious.
Order is masculine, chaos is feminine
In his book, 12 Rules of Life: An Antitode to Chaos, Jordan Peterson did a wonderful job explaining the difference between order and chaos. A Guardian article hilariously and succinctly summarized part of Peterson’s concept:
Order is Masculine and Chaos is Feminine. Therefore to move towards Order, we all need to man up. Happiness is pointless. We are all on this Earth to suffer. So learn to suffer like a man. Not everyone can be as rich and successful as me, but try to be less of a failure than you already are.John Crace
What Peterson actually says is, Stand up straight with your shoulders back (Rule 1) and accept the terrible responsibility of life. The point is trying to make is that life is not always a party and we need to learn how to shoulder the burden of being. In Eastern philosophy, this heroic path is known as the Middle Way. We are living in interesting times and learning to navigate between order and chaos is crucial. This article will help you do that, guided by the wise words of Jordan Peterson.
Order and chaos are the most basic subdivisions of being
Everyone experiences the world through chaos, order, and something in between called consciousness. We eternally inhabit order, surrounded by chaos. We eternally occupy known territory, surrounded by the unknown. We experience meaningful engagement when we mediate appropriately between them.
The meaning of order
Order is explored territory; it is the authority, the structured society. Order is tribe, religion, home, and country. It’s the warm, secure living room where the fireplace glows, and the children play. It’s the flag of the nation. It’s the floor underneath your feet and your plan for the day. It’s the greatness of tradition, the rows of desks in a school classroom, the train that leaves on time, the calendar, and the clock. We’re in there when things are going according to plan and nothing is new and disturbing. Order is the place where the world’s behavior matches our expectations and our desires, the place where all things turn out the way we want them to. We like to be in there. In order, we’re able to think about things in the long term. There, things work, and we are stable, calm, and competent. We seldom leave places we understand – geographical and conceptual – for that reason.
But order can be tyrannical when its demands for certainty, uniformity, and purity become too one-sided. Where everything is certain, we’re in order. You are in order when you have a loyal friend or trustworthy ally. When that person sells you out, you move from the daytime world of clarity and light to the dark underworld of chaos, confusion, and despair.
The meaning of Chaos
Chaos is unexplored territory. Chaos is the stranger represents the rustle in the bushes at night, the monster under the bed, the sickness of your child. It is the place you find yourself when things fall apart, when your dream dies, your career collapses, or your marriage ends. Chaos is where new ideas destroy old and comfortable certainties. Chaos is when we don’t know where we are. When we don’t know what we’re doing, and when we don’t know where we are going.
When the ice you’re skating on is solid, that’s order. When the bottom drops out, and things fall apart, and you plunge through the ice; that’s chaos. Human beings have a great capacity for wrongdoing. We can and do make things worse, voluntarily, with full knowledge of what we are doing as well as accidentally, and carelessly, and in a manner that is willfully blind. There are so many ways that things can fall apart or fail to work altogether, and it is those with fortitude and perseverance who valiantly fight their way through chaos who will come on the other side, battered but victorious.
The Yin and Yang
In Eastern philosophy, order, the known, appears symbolically associated with masculinity (as illustrated in the yin and yang symbol). This is perhaps because the primary hierarchical structure of human society is masculine. It is because men are and throughout history have been the builders of towns and cities, the engineers, stonemasons, bricklayers. Order is the peacetime army of policemen and soldiers. It’s the political culture, the government, the corporate environment, and the system. Order, when pushed too far, when imbalanced, can also manifest itself destructively and terribly. It does so as the concentration camp or the gulag.
Chaos, the unknown is symbolically associated with the feminine. This is partly because all the things we have come to know were born, originally, of the unknown, just as all beings we encounter were born of mothers. Chaos is the substance from which all things are made. In its positive guide, chaos is possibility itself, the source of ideas, the miracle of gestation and birth. As a negative force, it’s the mother-bear, all compassion to her cubs, but who marks you as a potential predator and tears you to pieces.
Order and chaos are the yang and yin of the famous Taoist symbol: two serpents, head to tail. Order is the white, masculine serpent, chaos, is its black, feminine counterpart. The black dot in the white—and the white in the black—indicate the possibility of transformation: just when things seem secure, the unknown can loom, unexpectedly and large. Conversely, just when everything seems lost, new order can emerge from catastrophe and chaos.
For the Taoists, meaning is to be found on the border between the ever-entwined pair. To walk that border is to stay on the path of life, the Middle Way or the Divine Way. The Taoist juxtaposition of yin and yang doesn’t simply portray chaos and order as the fundamental element of being – it also tells you how to act. The Way, The Taoist path of life, is represented by the border between the twin serpents. The Way is the path of proper Being. The same idea is expressed in Matthew 7:14: “Because strait is the gate, and narrow is the way, which leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it”.
To saddle that fundamental duality is to be balanced: to have one foot firmly planted in order and security and the other in chaos will lead to growth and adventure. Everyone understands order and chaos, good and evil. We all have a palpable sense of chaos lurking under everything familiar. We’ve all been to both places many times. When life suddenly reveals itself as intense, gripping, and meaningful, when time passes, and you’re so engrossed in what you’re doing, you don’t notice – it is there and then that you are located precisely on the border between order and chaos. It’s the right place to be in every sense. Chaos and order are fundamental elements because every lived situation is made up of both.
No matter where we are, there are some things we can identify, make use of, and predict, and some things we neither know nor understand. No matter where we are, some things are under our control, and some things are not. The fundamental reality of chaos and order is true for everything alive, not only for us. Living things are always to be found in places they can master, surrounded by things and situations that make them vulnerable. Order is not enough. You can’t just be stable, and secure, and unchanging because there are still vital and important new things to be learned. Nonetheless, chaos can be too much. You can’t tolerate being swamped and overwhelmed beyond your capacity to cope while learning what you still need to know.
Thus, you need to place one foot in what you have mastered and understood and the other in what you are currently exploring and mastering. Then you have positioned yourself where the terror of existence is under control, and you are secure, but where you are also alert and engaged.
This is where meaning could be found. And, this my dear friend, is your Quest.
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