12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos (8 page)

To stand up straight with your shoulders back is to accept the terrible responsibility of life, with eyes wide open. It means deciding to voluntarily transform the chaos of potential into the realities of habitable order. It means adopting the burden of self-conscious vulnerability, and accepting the end of the unconscious paradise of childhood, where finitude and mortality are only dimly comprehended. It means willingly undertaking the sacrifices necessary to generate a productive and meaningful reality (it means acting to please God, in the ancient language).

To stand up straight with your shoulders back means building the ark that protects the world from the flood, guiding your people through the desert after they have escaped tyranny, making your way away from comfortable home and country, and speaking the prophetic word to those who ignore the widows and children. It means shouldering the cross that marks the X, the place where you and Being intersect so terribly. It means casting dead, rigid and too tyrannical order back into the chaos in which it was generated; it means withstanding the ensuing uncertainty, and establishing, in consequence, a better, more meaningful and more productive order.

So, attend carefully to your posture. Quit drooping and hunching around. Speak your mind. Put your desires forward, as if you had a
right to them—at least the same right as others. Walk tall and gaze forthrightly ahead. Dare to be dangerous. Encourage the serotonin to flow plentifully through the neural pathways desperate for its calming influence.

People, including yourself, will start to assume that you are competent and able (or at least they will not immediately conclude the reverse). Emboldened by the positive responses you are now receiving, you will begin to be less anxious. You will then find it easier to pay attention to the subtle social clues that people exchange when they are communicating. Your conversations will flow better, with fewer awkward pauses. This will make you more likely to meet people, interact with them, and impress them. Doing so will not only genuinely increase the probability that good things will happen to you—it will also make those good things feel better when they do happen.

Thus strengthened and emboldened, you may choose to embrace Being, and work for its furtherance and improvement. Thus strengthened, you may be able to stand, even during the illness of a loved one, even during the death of a parent, and allow others to find strength alongside you when they would otherwise be overwhelmed with despair. Thus emboldened, you will embark on the voyage of your life, let your light shine, so to speak, on the heavenly hill, and pursue your rightful destiny. Then the meaning of your life may be sufficient to keep the corrupting influence of mortal despair at bay.

Then you may be able to accept the terrible burden of the World, and find joy.

Look for your inspiration to the victorious lobster, with its 350 million years of practical wisdom. Stand up straight, with your shoulders back.


Imagine that a hundred people are prescribed a drug. Consider what happens next. One-third of them won’t fill the prescription.
Half of the remaining sixty-seven will fill it, but won’t take the medication correctly. They’ll miss doses. They’ll quit taking it early. They might not even take it at all.

Physicians and pharmacists tend to blame such patients for their noncompliance, inaction and error. You can lead a horse to water, they reason. Psychologists tend to take a dim view of such judgments. We are trained to assume that the failure of patients to follow professional advice is the fault of the practitioner, not the patient. We believe the health-care provider has a responsibility to profer advice that will be followed, offer interventions that will be respected, plan with the patient or client until the desired result is achieved, and follow up to ensure that everything is going correctly. This is just one of the many things that make psychologists so wonderful – :). Of course, we have the luxury of time with our clients, unlike other more beleaguered
professionals, who wonder why sick people won’t take their medication. What’s wrong with them? Don’t they want to get better?

Here’s something worse. Imagine that someone receives an organ transplant. Imagine it’s a kidney. A transplant typically occurs only after a long period of anxious waiting on the part of the recipient. Only a minority of people donate organs when they die (and even fewer when they are still alive). Only a small number of donated organs are a good match for any hopeful recipient. This means that the typical kidney transplantee has been undergoing dialysis, the only alternative, for years. Dialysis involves passing all the patient’s blood out of his or her body, through a machine, and back in. It is an unlikely and miraculous treatment, so that’s all good, but it’s not pleasant. It must happen five to seven times a week, for eight hours a time. It should happen every time the patient sleeps. That’s too much. No one wants to stay on dialysis.

Now, one of the complications of transplantation is rejection. Your body does not like it when parts of someone else’s body are stitched into it. Your immune system will attack and destroy such foreign elements, even when they are crucial to your survival. To stop this from happening, you must take anti-rejection drugs, which weaken immunity, increasing your susceptibility to infectious disease. Most people are happy to accept the trade-off. Recipients of transplants still suffer the effects of organ rejection, despite the existence and utility of these drugs. It’s not because the drugs fail (although they sometimes do). It’s more often because those prescribed the drugs do not take them. This beggars belief. It is seriously not good to have your kidneys fail. Dialysis is no picnic. Transplantation surgery occurs after long waiting, at high risk and great expense. To lose all that because you don’t take your medication? How could people do that to themselves? How could this possibly be?

It’s complicated, to be fair. Many people who receive a transplanted organ are isolated, or beset by multiple physical health problems (to say nothing of problems associated with unemployment or family crisis). They may be cognitively impaired or depressed. They may not entirely trust their doctor, or understand the necessity of the
medication. Maybe they can barely afford the drugs, and ration them, desperately and unproductively.

But—and this is the amazing thing—imagine that it isn’t you who feels sick. It’s your dog. So, you take him to the vet. The vet gives you a prescription. What happens then? You have just as many reasons to distrust a vet as a doctor. Furthermore, if you cared so little for your pet that you weren’t concerned with what improper, substandard or error-ridden prescription he might be given, you wouldn’t have taken him to the vet in the first place. Thus, you care. Your actions prove it. In fact, on average, you care
. People are better at filling and properly administering prescription medication to their pets than to themselves. That’s not good. Even from your pet’s perspective, it’s not good. Your pet (probably) loves you, and would be happier if you took your medication.

It is difficult to conclude anything from this set of facts except that people appear to love their dogs, cats, ferrets and birds (and maybe even their lizards) more than themselves. How horrible is that? How much shame must exist, for something like that to be true? What could it be about people that makes them prefer their pets to themselves?

It was an ancient story in the Book of Genesis—the first book in the Old Testament—that helped me find an answer to that perplexing question.

The Oldest Story and the Nature of the World

Two stories of Creation from two different Middle Eastern sources appear to be woven together in the Genesis account. In the chronologically first but historically more recent account—known as the “Priestly”—God created the cosmos, using His divine Word, speaking light, water and land into existence, following that with the plants and the heavenly bodies. Then He created birds and animals and fish (again, employing speech)—and ended with man, male and female, both somehow formed in his image. That all happens in Genesis 1. In the second, older, “Jawhist” version, we find another origin account,
involving Adam and Eve (where the details of creation differ somewhat), as well as the stories of Cain and Abel, Noah and the Tower of Babel. That is Genesis 2 to 11. To understand Genesis 1, the Priestly story, with its insistence on speech as the fundamental creative force, it is first necessary to review a few fundamental, ancient assumptions (these are markedly different in type and intent from the assumptions of science, which are, historically speaking, quite novel).

Scientific truths were made explicit a mere five hundred years ago, with the work of Francis Bacon, René Descartes and Isaac Newton. In whatever manner our forebears viewed the world prior to that, it was not through a scientific lens (any more than they could view the moon and the stars through the glass lenses of the equally recent telescope). Because we are so scientific now—and so determinedly materialistic—it is very difficult for us even to understand that other ways of seeing can and do exist. But those who existed during the distant time in which the foundational epics of our culture emerged were much more concerned with the actions that dictated survival (and with interpreting the world in a manner commensurate with that goal) than with anything approximating what we now understand as objective truth.

Before the dawn of the scientific worldview, reality was construed differently. Being was understood as a place of action, not a place of things.
It was understood as something more akin to story or drama. That story or drama was lived, subjective experience, as it manifested itself moment to moment in the consciousness of every living person. It was something similar to the stories we tell each other about our lives and their personal significance; something similar to the happenings that novelists describe when they capture existence in the pages of their books. Subjective experience—that includes familiar objects such as trees and clouds, primarily objective in their existence, but also (and more importantly) such things as emotions and dreams as well as hunger, thirst and pain. It is such things, experienced personally, that are the most fundamental elements of human life, from the archaic, dramatic perspective, and they are not easily reducible to the detached and objective—even by the modern reductionist, materialist
mind. Take pain, for example—subjective pain. That’s something so real no argument can stand against it. Everyone acts as if their pain is real—ultimately, finally real. Pain matters, more than matter matters. It is for this reason, I believe, that so many of the world’s traditions regard the suffering attendant upon existence as the irreducible truth of Being.

In any case,
that which we subjectively experience
can be likened much more to a novel or a movie than to a scientific description of physical reality. It is the drama of lived experience—the unique, tragic, personal death of your father, compared to the objective death listed in the hospital records; the pain of your first love; the despair of dashed hopes; the joy attendant upon a child’s success.

The Domain, Not of Matter, but of What Matters

The scientific world of matter can be reduced, in some sense, to its fundamental constituent elements: molecules, atoms, even quarks. However, the world of experience has primal constituents, as well. These are the necessary elements whose interactions define drama and fiction. One of these is chaos. Another is order. The third (as there are three) is the process that mediates between the two, which appears identical to what modern people call consciousness. It is our eternal subjugation to the first two that makes us doubt the validity of existence—that makes us throw up our hands in despair, and fail to care for ourselves properly. It is proper understanding of the third that allows us the only real way out.

Chaos is the domain of ignorance itself. It’s
unexplored territory
. Chaos is what extends, eternally and without limit, beyond the boundaries of all states, all ideas, and all disciplines. It’s the foreigner, the stranger, the member of another gang, the rustle in the bushes in the night-time, the monster under the bed, the hidden anger of your mother, and the sickness of your child. Chaos is the despair and horror you feel when you have been profoundly betrayed. It’s the place you end up when things fall apart; when your dreams die, your career collapses, or your marriage ends. It’s the underworld of fairytale and
myth, where the dragon and the gold it guards eternally co-exist. Chaos is where we are when we don’t know where we are, and what we are doing when we don’t know what we are doing. It is, in short, all those things and situations we neither know nor understand.

Chaos is also the formless potential from which the God of Genesis 1 called forth order using language at the beginning of time. It’s the same potential from which we, made in that Image, call forth the novel and ever-changing moments of our lives. And Chaos is freedom, dreadful freedom, too.

Order, by contrast, is
explored territory
. That’s the hundreds-of-millions-of-years-old hierarchy of place, position and authority. That’s the structure of society. It’s the structure provided by biology, too—particularly insofar as you are adapted, as you are, to the structure of society. Order is tribe, religion, hearth, 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 value of the currency. Order is the floor beneath your feet, and your plan for the day. It’s the greatness of tradition, the rows of desks in a school classroom, the trains that leave on time, the calendar, and the clock. Order is the public façade we’re called upon to wear, the politeness of a gathering of civilized strangers, and the thin ice on which we all skate. Order is the place where the behavior of the world matches our expectations and our desires; the place where all things turn out the way we want them to. But order is sometimes tyranny and stultification, as well, when the demand for certainty and uniformity and purity becomes too one-sided.

Where everything is certain, we’re in order. We’re there when things are going according to plan and nothing is new and disturbing. In the domain of order, things behave as God intended. We like to be there. Familiar environments are congenial. In order, we’re able to think about things in the long term. There, things work, and we’re stable, calm and competent. We seldom leave places we understand—geographical or conceptual—for that reason, and we certainly do not like it when we are compelled to or when it happens accidentally.

You’re in order, when you have a loyal friend, a trustworthy ally.
When the same person betrays you, sells you out, you move from the daytime world of clarity and light to the dark underworld of chaos, confusion and despair. That’s the same move you make, and the same place you visit, when the company you work starts to fail and your job is placed in doubt. When your tax return has been filed, that’s order. When you’re audited, that’s chaos. Most people would rather be mugged than audited. Before the Twin Towers fell—that was order. Chaos manifested itself afterward. Everyone felt it. The very air became uncertain. What exactly was it that fell? Wrong question. What exactly remained standing? That was the issue at hand.

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. Order is the Shire of Tolkien’s hobbits: peaceful, productive and safely inhabitable, even by the naive. Chaos is the underground kingdom of the dwarves, usurped by Smaug, the treasure-hoarding serpent. Chaos is the deep ocean bottom to which Pinocchio voyaged to rescue his father from Monstro, whale and fire-breathing dragon. That journey into darkness and rescue is the most difficult thing a puppet must do, if he wants to be real; if he wants to extract himself from the temptations of deceit and acting and victimization and impulsive pleasure and totalitarian subjugation; if he wants to take his place as a genuine Being in the world.

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