Life is full of uncertainties and unknowns that the most intelligent and the wisest of use are completely powerless to foresee or prepare for and that no amount of computing power would be sufficient to neatly order everything into one concise picture that could be predictive of every element of future happenings. What I mean by that is that life is chaotic – on the personal scale, on a group scale and on a broader, fundamental scale. Of course it is not all randomness and unpredictability – then life would have never emerged in this planet in the first place or at least would have never evolved to the point we have. Nature does present us with many challenges, though, and a quick look at the cosmos with a basic understanding of astronomy will show you just how chaotic and ruthless the natural world can be. I could state that on a cosmic scale, we are unbelievably lucky to still be alive as a species and to not have been wiped out by an extinction event akin to the one 65 million years ago that exterminated the dinosaurs and left an ecological niche open for our mammalian ancestors to thrive and, ultimately, conquer the planet as homo sapiens.
Of course, the progress of humans as a species can be seen as a long process of gradually bringing the chaos of nature to some sort of order – first, by mastering fire and using it for cooking, fending off predators, light and heat. The creation of tools and the advent of agriculture are all extremely significant milestones in the development of our species that can be categorized as the triumph of human ingenuity over the forces of nature and bringing some part of chaos to order. Naturally, as humans settled down and started forming larger and larger societies and developed crafts and trades, culture began to form, laws were established, hierarchies naturally formed and yet another layer of order emerged – the first societies were in a way the product of the ordering of multiple chaotic actors under the same general goal.
Of course, human history is not only a story of putting order to the chaos of nature; many of our ancestors were responsible for great chaos themselves, characterized by the immeasurable number of conflicts between tribes at first, then larger populations. As human populations grew, so did their need and their ability to craft weapons of war, and the tactics of war were becoming more and more complex. As we all know very well, war is chaos and the results of it are destruction, not only of lives, but also of the natural environment, of property, of land and in a way, of the human spirit. One way to characterize the history of human beings is the constant struggle between suffering and hardship and the ways to cope with them.
So, how did our ancestors attempt to make sense of the chaos and order permeating their lives? Well, we have early evidence of burying the dead, which shows a strong belief in the afterlife. What this means is that our ancient ancestors conceptualized a world beyond the one they inhabited and populated that world with the souls or essence or being of those who had passed away in the material realm. In terms of psychology, this was driven by mortality salience – the inability to cope with the fact of one’s imminent death. But was it this simple? Did our ancestors tap into a much deeper psychological aspect of all of us as humans that is still very much relevant? I would posit that the first instances of burying the dead were attempts to juxtapose the chaos of nature in its violence and unpredictability with the order of a peaceful realm where the soul of one can rest in peace, free from pain, suffering and loss.
Another instance of juxtaposition between order and chaos is how our ancestors attributed qualities to the night and the day – the sun shines forth and its light and warmth brings life to the world, awakes it from its slumber and watches over everything. The night is dark, cold, unpredictable, dangerous and frightening – predators lurk at night and children cower in their mother’s bosoms; falling asleep leaves one at one’s most vulnerable state. This duality of light and dark, of day and night is so deeply imprinted in our psyche, we can instantly relate with these ideas even in works of writing and art from thousands of years ago – they speak to us in ways we can experience with our being, not with our rational minds. What we can see here is that again there is the realm of the chaotic and the orderly. But what time of the day can we truly say we feel with our being in a pure and deep way? Well, there are two of them – daybreak and sunset – countless metaphors and stories about them have been spoken and written throughout the ages, but one thing lies in common in all of them: they are told in terms of an eternal struggle between order and chaos.
What is even more fascinating is that so many ancient cultures that could have had no contact with each other came up with stories, tales, parables and nuggets of folk wisdom, all bearing the distinct features of their place of origin and the people inhabiting it, but with so many common underlying ideas – the struggle between light and darkness, the creation of the world through putting order to chaos, the story of the crumbling old kingdom and the chaos ensuing it and the idealized hero who through great adversity and strength of spirit brings forth justice, but also wisdom. You can think of countless such stories, no doubt – not just religious or folk mythology, but in literature, drama and poetry from the time of the oldest remaining written texts (The Epic of Gilgamesh from the Sumerian civilization would serve as a great example).
How can it be so that as far back as we can find evidence for it, human beings have been telling each other such stories that can captivate our very being? What is it about these stories that still excites us and lights up our imagination to this day? There are a plethora of universal motifs, story arcs and character types and the interaction between all these elements form the world of the narrative that’s being told in our mind’s eye. Well, one thing seems rather clear – though not through means of rationality and empiricism – these stories convey to us a very powerful sense of meaning. What I mean by that is nothing like the dictionary meaning of a word or concept, but of a language that bypasses our superficial layers of understanding and strikes at our very core – it cuts to our being ( or soul, what have you ) and delivers a sensation so powerful and pure I find it impossible to express it in my vocabulary. What’s more, essential elements of these stories are the interaction between order and chaos on different levels and in different domains, bur on the larger scale the picture is essentially this: At first, there is order, peace and prosperity, but it is disturbed and the hero ventures forth through the realms of chaos to find an artifact or the knowledge needed to put it back and upon the hero’s return, he realizes he never needed what he was looking for, all that was needed was already present, it just took a new way of seeing things. This is exactly the core idea of all such stories – one ought to achieve the balance between order and chaos in their own life to find true fulfillment and to place one’s being in alignment with existence itself.
I know this may seem rather strange, obscure and arcane, but I believe such stories and the strong captivating presence they have on us can serve as a way for us to better understand ourselves and the others around us in a more holistic and humble way. Besides, the moral of all this is nothing new, as it has been passed from countless generations – through struggle and adversity one forges one’s being to be both their shield against corruption and their path to fulfillment. Even though these words carry their meaning very strongly, it is understandably hard for one to extrapolate that meaning onto their own life in a productive manner, so I will put it simply and plainly.
Explore that which terrifies you, do not shy away from adversity and hardship, and accept it as an exercise of laying the foundation for your future better self. The key in all this is the balance between the forces of order and chaos that pull you in opposite directions.
Before seeking the balance though, let yourself be frightened to the very core of your being.