No, not that one. Though perhaps that one, or a more concrete incarnation of it. Though evil seems cohesive and organized, it is often either about to bring about the oldest enemy of mankind, perhaps the oldest enemy of life or perhaps just that enemy with a mask on, dancing forever formlessly in the void.
I was probably one of the few people not at all surprised that Jordan Peterson’s seminal work was subtitled “An antidote to chaos.” Because of course that is our ancient enemy, the enemy of every that lives down to the smallest organized cell.
Perhaps it is my Greek ancestry (in culture, via the Romans, if nothing else. I mean 23 and me has opinions, but they revise my genetic makeup so often I’m not betting on anything. Also, frankly, they base it on today’s populations, so that if say every person in an extended family left Greece to colonize Iberia, today I’d show only Iberian genetics. [Spoiler: I don’t. Europeans are far more mixed up than they dream of in their philosophies.]) that makes me see Chaos as a vast force waiting in the darkness before and around this brief bit of light that is Earth and humanity, ready to devour us all.
I can’t be the only one impressed by this image, as I’ve run across echoes of it in countless stories both science fiction and fantasy. If you’re reading the kind of story that tries to scrute the ultimate inscrutable and unscrew the parts of the mental universe of humanity to take a metaphorical look under the hood, sooner or later you come across a scene where the main characters get to the end of it all and face howling chaos and darkness. Only it usually doesn’t even howl, nor is it dark. It’s just nothing. Which is the ultimate face and vision of chaos. And most of us know it. Perhaps writers, most of all.
I have a complex relation with chaos, in that part of me seems to be permanently submerged in it. Some of this is the culture in which I was brought up. You know, the Portuguese might have crime, but no one can accuse them of having organized crime. Or indeed organized much of anything.
It’s not just the disease of “late industrializing culture.” There’s something more at work. For one, the Portuguese pride themselves on it. They routinely contrast the British habit of queuing for everything to the Portuguese habit of queuing for nothing (And you haven’t lived till you see a communion scrum with the little old ladies having their elbows at the level of young men’s crotches) by describing the way Portuguese do not queue as “All in a pile and may G-d help us.”
Do they have a point? Kind of. If Portugal weren’t such an old nation (but maybe it’s a second childhood) I’d call them the college kid of Europe. They can’t quite get their act straight, but they can be startlingly, amazingly creative. One of the things I’ve talked about (I THINK?) here is how many of my brother’s cohort, coming of age at a time when there were NO jobs took up some kind of craft work, from making jewelry to (I used to covet them) making elaborate, hand painted wooden dragon mobile’s and selling all of this. Looking back at that pre-EU time when it was relatively easy to set up a (illegal, of course) stall in downtown Porto I realize most of the stuff on offer was downright artistic, and often incredibly creative when you realized what materials they were working with.
Then the economy recovered, they got jobs, a lot of them connected to or linked to government and all of that stopped. And of course with the EU there are no illegal stalls. I mean Papiere, bitte and all that.
And somehow, perhaps because the new generation knows they have all sorts of “benefits” and “support” coming to them and have never felt the bite of chaos, the crafts and arts in the stores are either startlingly mundane or bizarre. I’m still rather puzzled by entire “scenes from life” (including one that was an operating room) sculpted with penises instead of humans. I mean… who even buys that? Okay. We know who buys that. But do the German tourists and their nostalgie de la boue think they’re tapping into something uniquely “uninhibited and free”, some kind of wild Portuguese sexuality? Raises eyebrow. The Portuguese have been civilized land long before the Germans traded their furs for a place as Roman soldiers. And sure, the Romans could be startlingly and inappropriately sexual (I call to mind a mural, not out of place in a Roman middle class home that had monkeys copulating with children) but it didn’t mean that the culture was “free”, rather that they had different rules. Frankly, the sixties attempt to erase history has corrupted real art and… well, everything else.
Which is kind of the college student thing. Chaos and free time allows you to be very creative, but then you’re not organized enough to parlay that into a career. (I mean, if they’re destined to be the touristic “warm port” of Europe, perhaps they should consider letting real art flourish. Or even encouraging it. Grants for small businesses and young people. It beats the jobs that don’t exist. Just demand they be actually creative and accomplished, instead of giving grants for art that my kids could do at age two and about as interesting.
Leaving that digression aside, I don’t know if it’s genetic — might be. Kids show signs of the same issue, but it could just be being brought up with a mother who periodically crawled into a book for two weeks and forgot all daily routines — but I know that being raised in barely controlled chaos leaves its mark.
Those of you who know me in real life will be shocked to find out that I was considered too organized by most Portuguese. Certainly too organized to be in any way artistic.
I often joke I spent most of my teen years standing around on street corners. This is somewhat dulled when I say I was usually reading a science fiction book while doing so. You see, my friends and I would arrange to meet at a certain time. I’d be there fifteen minutes early (with public transportation you have a choice of early or late. Particularly public transportation…) The bulk of my friends would drag in an hour later. One or two would show up two hours later. Sometimes it was too late to go see the movie we planned on seeing. Sometimes the fact that they were so late meant I wouldn’t be home for dinner, and I had to find a phone booth to call mom and tell her, which in turn turned her dinner plans to mush.
Other things I did were just as baffling to those around me: I had schedules, even while on vacation. Get up at a certain time, do this, do that. Set pieces around which I would fit in the “freedom” of summer.
Later, already in the States I got — bizarrely — confronted with the same accusation “you’re too organized to be a real writer.” Being green as grass and isolated I took a three-day course (over a long weekend) on something like “writing your novel.” (I honestly no longer remember what the course was. It was something whose title attracted me, but which — despite being taught by a Real Writer (TM) mostly consisted of either blather or things I’d figured out on my own.
Being green as grass and young and a bit stupid (youth is full of derp. It eventually leaks out, but not fast enough) and being tired of the “when inspiration hits” stuff, by the end of the weekend I brought out my records of words written, my schedule on when to write and when to send out, and my spreadsheets of where I’d sent those stories.
I was then told that I was too organized to be creative. Which … Considering I was sending out a short story a week, writing two to three novels a year (while watching two toddlers) and sold my first short story within months of that class is funny to look back upon but wasn’t funny at the time.
I lost that somewhere along the way. It wasn’t even the kids — though part of it was, and I’ll explain why — as health and also the fact that at one time I was working for three publishing houses at once. (Only way, then, to make a living, which I needed to.) If you remember your high school, where every teacher thought he owned ALL your time, imagine that with employers who, for a five thousand dollar a year contract, felt free to hit you up at any time with their “urgent” (yes, someone else’s procrastination is your emergency, if you’re a free-land writer.) stuff. You’d be in the middle of a novel, and chaos in the form of page proofs for another would hit. Or your publisher would ask you to write a blurb for a colleague (and those were never used, adding salt to the wound) or you’d have to write an article for some publication that 10 people read and couldn’t say “it’s not worth my time” because it would be held against you.
The kids contributed to this backwards and sideways, and I’ll explain how. Hold on for another digression first (look, I haven’t had enough coffee, and my sleepiness manifests as talking a lot. Deal.)
To me the first encounter with chaos, with that nothingness into which the world dissolves (and more on how this is a very modern enemy kind of) was in summer vacations starting in about Middle School.
You see, my school time was highly regimented. I was either in school, doing homework, helping mom with the house or snatching the occasional (okay, more or less constant, but mom couldn’t know that) half hour of reading between chores.
So summer vacation would be bliss, right?
Well, summer vacation in Portugal when I was growing up (ah, revolutionary times. Chaos) could go anywhere from the standard 3 months to 6 months. I remember a year that we got out in May and the next school year — via a combination of teacher strikes and the school flooding from bad pipes — didn’t start till January. (They never told you when it would start, either. You had to call every day or so, or you might miss it. No, seriously.)
This might have been okay if I had anything to do during summer. Sure, I kept busy, mostly reading. Sometimes trying my hand at various crafts. Taking walks. But there was no form to it, no schedule. I didn’t even have enough friends (usually no more than three) to impose order on my off time. So a day of formless nothing flowed into a day of formless nothing. It didn’t matter that I was reading everything I could vacuum up. It mattered that other than Saturdays when I had to clean house, life had no set piece, no form. I found myself simultaneously glutted with opportunities and bored, diverted and depressed. It’s a hell of a state.
Which is why by the time I hit college I’d learned to have a “set piece” routine around which I fitted stuff, and to set goals for my time off. “I’m going to work on my French and I want to be able to read x in the original” or “I need to write 100k words by end of summer”. And to take those goals very seriously indeed. Because overwork is better than chaos.
Getting married brought another adjustment. I found early on, when I first stayed home to write — the first of many attempts — that if I didn’t get up when Dan did (but not go to bed at the same time. He used to subsist on 4 hours sleep, which would kill me in two months) I’d get up at noon, and the day would be utterly formless, with nothing accomplished.
The biggest mistake, but also a necessity, was setting my schedule around the boys when they were in school. Get up two hours early, to get quiet writing done. Work on it when they were in school. Be “just mommy” when I picked them up.
Which means the last six years or so have been me adapting to the insanity of their being home at irregular hours (mostly because we chose to have them live at home while in college, to save money.) Now that younger son has to live away (you can drive from Denver every day, of course, but he claims it curtails his studying. And probably his social activities, but never mind.) and older son has his own establishment, it’s time to re institute routine. Except for this being the year of traveling hell of course. As in, I’m gone for a week or two of every month until either July or September (some things are still in the air, but this year being what it is…)
There is however a deeper chaos than the formless routine. The utter and complete lack of goals and ambitions, of something to work towards. I never lacked that, but I sort of did.
You see, they are both born of the same thing: prosperity.
If you lived in a rural community in the already excessively civilized and well off middle ages (compared to earlier times) you didn’t have time to fall into formlessness and chaos. There were things to plant and things to cook and animals to tend to (and animals are a heck of a taskmaster. You can’t explain to them that you’re taking a day off.) Grandma who did all of these things was busy every day of her long life, with no time or space for chaos.
Did it curtail artistic creation? I don’t know. We have art from the middle ages, and often even “just” cloth work of the sort that occupied most women’s “free time”is startlingly artistic. Mind you, their life wasn’t regimented, just busy. There is a difference.
Life even in the village when I was little was hemmed in by the ringing of the bell (the famous toc sine.) People who no longer prayed at the prescribed dozen times during the day (yeah, Christians did that too) still set their lives by the bell. “I will clean the stalls till vespers, and then I need to put supper on” say. (I don’t remember if it was vespers, mind. I no longer remember any of the names of the bells.) There was order, even if it was loose order and not to the clock precisely.
More importantly it was hemmed in because most of the people there were on the verge of real ruin at any time — real ruin is not having to declare bankruptcy, it’s starving to death and going without clothes — and this imposed discipline.
We have made life so rich and so safe, people can afford to dissolve into chaos and making themselves nothing.
Only the end of that road is reigning in hell. And in hell everyone suffers, even the king.
There are enough people who confuse chaos with freedom. There are enough people making something into nothing and destroying everything, themselves most of all.
Don’t be one of those people. Build order into your day. Scheduling, sure, but also… to combat chaos you need goals.
Peterson says aim for the highest you can achieve. He’s not wrong. Your goal should be your stretch goal.
But what if you fail?
TRUST me, I know what I speak of. Failure is just a form of chaos. Don’t stay mired in it. Don’t blame yourself beyond figuring out what you did wrong and correcting. If you fail, burn that bridge when you come to it. In the meantime? Aim for the best and highest you can get. The best you can do, the most you can earn, and most of all, the best person you can be.
You know the army thing? “Be all that you can be?”
Aim for that. If it fails, it at least won’t leave you mired in chaos.
And you can always try again, as long as there’s life.
Go. Counter the chaos in the world. If all you have is this little candle, it is enough to give light to this little corner of the world. And to wring order and shape out of formless, all devouring chaos.
Chaos is the enemy. Within it nothing exists. This is not the calm you long for. It’s just nothing forever.
You, even the most disorganized of you, are stronger than chaos. Remember that. And use it as your sword to combat the all devouring endless nothing.