I recently had a conversation with a client who owns a mid-sized company. He talked about how he brought himself to the verge of a panic attack because of the current chaos in the markets.
Even though there’s nothing wrong with his business, he can’t stop himself thinking about the potential problems. He loses sleep over it, and he’s constantly short of breath.
I think nowadays, many of us experience similar circumstances on different scales, especially when we cannot define our situation and put a label on it.
Canadian psychologist, writer, and academic Jordan Peterson says that people’s experience of existence is determined according to the games played between the two “divine” powers: Order and Chaos. (Jordan Peterson, Maps of Meaning: The Architecture of Belief, 1999.)
Order and Chaos
Order is what we know, what we are familiar with. It’s a world where my actions and directions, as well as those of others, and their consequences can be predicted. It’s a world where there are no threats, facts are significant, and the buses, trains, and planes are always on time. It’s a world where I always achieve my goals and my home, job, health, money, loved ones, and country are safe. It’s a place where I know the meaning of facts, behaviors, words, and my existence, a place where I feel peaceful. On the other hand, it’s a place that facilitates repetition, and there is no room for the new. There are no new opportunities or possibilities, and there’s no excitement or any other kind of feelings. Basically, it’s a stagnant place.
It’s the world of rules, order, and authority, the masculine Yang, the father principle.
Chaos, meanwhile, is the unfamiliar. It’s a world where I do not recognize, and I cannot predict its directions, limits, and possibilities. People and facts are different than I expect, and behaviors have unpredictable outcomes. It’s the unknown, and because of this, it contains infinite possibilities. It seems dark, but light is born from within. It’s a place where I do not feel safe and lack direction, not knowing my next step and what it will cause. I do not know what will happen to me. It’s a place where I do not know the meaning of facts, behaviors, and experiences, where anything is possible. It is a scary place, indeed. On the other hand, though, it’s a place where all new possibilities, all creations, all excitement, all feelings, adventure and opportunities, and all kinds of miraculous solutions exist. It’s the feminine Yin, the mother principle.
A Human Adventure
Human beings venture between these two dynamic powers. This summarizes the struggle of human civilizations for tens of thousands of years.
It seems like humanity tries to make the world an orderly one where formulas are set and the facts are comprehendible and predictable. It tries to feed off of this world, which is essentially chaotic, unknown, and undefined, with unlimited possibilities that can occur at any time. There are no clear explanations regarding the spontaneous facts that come from the force that lies beneath all scientific, political, economic, cultural, and social evolutions and revolutions.
Even culture tries to create a safe and predictable ground for human relations by defining a common map of meanings through acceptable behavior.
That’s why withdrawing from disorder, misdirection, and the unknown and moving toward order, the defined, and the known is more or less written in the genetic code of humanity and engraved into our nervous system. This is why we choose leaders who promise us order, direction, and protection, and we willingly hand authority over to them.
There’s no problem here, especially when things are okay. But the problem is this: How much can we invest in the continuity of this order? How long can we wait for the continuity of this order? Although we assume we brought order into our world and made it stable and constant, we perhaps have achieved nothing more than the establishment of tiny islands of order within a vast sea of the unknown. Moreover, these islands are made of paper, and they tend to unfold in the sea of chaos and return us over and over to an unpredictable, changing, undefined life and the ambiguity, uncertainty, and ineffability of the world.
Our first reaction to this situation would generally be to take refuge in more order and more authority. We want our team’s lack of motivation to be unraveled in one training session. We want social peace to be ensured through military action. We want a new CEO to solve a company’s problems miraculously by taking decisions that do not make us feel uncertain or disturbed. We want a new political leader to come in and save our country. We like statements that give meaning to the chaos we exist in. Thinking that unknown dark forces are mocking us gives meaning to the meaningless, and it defines the chaos that we cannot comprehend. It is easier to get angry with an imaginary enemy that we cannot see rather than not know how to react, let alone what we are reacting to.
Such solutions sometimes ease us for a short period. It creates a feeling that we’ve temporarily returned to order. However, even when this order is really established once again, it’s still just a paper island floating in the middle of a wet sea of chaos, so we soon face the same problem again. This time, we hang on to order much more, though, and we deny the unknown much more as well. We gradually transform into autocratic leaders, executives, societies, companies, parents, and partners.
The Third Divine Force
Jordan Peterson says that due to taking so much refuge in order, “…the creative researching process that enables the society to move forward, is interrupted.” He then adds that “the limitation of this adaptation capacity…increases the possibility of chaos, dramatically.” So, when people take this road, they invite greater chaos through their own actions, creating this disorder themselves.
This change that requires adaptation, which we have discussed time and time again, is now a kind of change where the existing knowledge and order is no longer sufficient. It requires us to consciously escape that order and control in order to reach a better place. We need to question our existing definitions, perceptions, approaches, and meanings to take a step toward all the possibilities presented by the unknown, gradually and cautiously stepping away from the familiar. Peterson defines the third divine force, together with chaos and order, as the “human” that expands the limits of order by dancing between these two forces and giving meaning to their own lives by using these two forces.
Change can only occur through questioning our values, thoughts, habits, actions, and identities, or in other words, our existing orders that no longer serve a purpose and keep us within our current dilemma. Furthermore, this can only happen by agreeing to let go of some of these. This is an utterly disturbing process that includes a feeling of loss. No progress is possible through any other means, though, because we would continue living with temporary solutions like authoritative pressure, both from within and from the outside, and our problems will keep coming back to us again and again.
This is exactly why the problems of many companies or the complicated issues of countries and societies can never be resolved with solutions that constantly try to restore the familiar order. Technical solutions that try to bring premature, conventional and proven orders to complicated unidentified problems with limited control and ambiguity will be futile in the long run.
Dancing with Order and Chaos
Plunging into chaos completely would not work either, however. Feeling that the process of change itself is following a certain order, seeing the direction of change, and keeping it in front of our eyes, can be hard, even if we accept some losses in the process of change. We can, however, fundamentally know we are secure and headed to a place better than our current one, and this makes this disturbing process more bearable for us.
That’s why being a leader is a critical task. Being a leader means walking the narrow, critical line between the familiar and the unknown efficiently and being able to assure the people that walk with you as well.
Two Tools to Handle Chaos
One very important way to do this is to add meaning to the state you are in, to accept the chaos as part of an ongoing dance within order and chaos. After experiencing the whole process we’ve been talking about within in our session, my client said:
“Yes, I feel utter chaos. I fear that the order I created, my paper ship, will shatter. It fills my entire mind. I can’t see anything other than chaos, but I notice that this is because I cannot see the bigger picture, where chaos is also a part of it.”
On saying this, he exhales the breath he’s been holding in for the very first time. His shoulders and his face relax, and it looks as if he feels the sofa he’s sitting on and the floor he steps on for the very first time.
“Great,” I say, “Perhaps, you can remind this to yourself every time you feel fear and anxiety and repeat it to yourself.” The second important way of handling chaos and effectively using the opportunities it offers is this: Create practices, exercises, and rituals that will bring order to our own inner chaos, because this will keep us on the path, and apply them no matter what.
My client likes this idea, so I ask him, “What other practices would be useful for you?”
He thinks for a while before saying, “Dost, I have made a whole bunch of paper ships until now. Some did take in water and unfold, but I made a new one every time. I can do it again. If this one unfolds too, I can make others.”
As my client’s body relaxes, a great poem by Bedri Rahmi Eyüboğlu came to mind:
I made a tiny paper ship.
It would merely hold five kisses,
Or perhaps ten.
My sister said
This ship would sink in ten kisses.
Are you adding
My mom said, “Don’t throw it into the sea.”
Go straight to the pool.
Are you going
Straight to the sea?
But it got wet and sank immediately.
I’ll make another ship, so what?
And this time instead of kisses
It will have a few glorious curses.
I’ll make a few more ships.