The last couple months have been extremely difficult, throwing new challenge after new challenge at me. The underlying difficulty of these problems has been that they’ve been inscrutable. How do you make sense of dementia? Of cancer? Of loved ones suddenly cutting off ties, without explanation? How do you make sense out of the chaos of daily life?
This has been on my mind a lot lately. And this is what I’ve got:
Making order of chaos — out of the non-understood — is the fundamental challenge of being human. Think to the evolution of human civilizations, and how we’ve established explanations for what our experiences. Sometimes it’s as ridiculous as “the sun is pulled across the sky by 4 horses and a guy in a chariot” or “winter happens because mother nature misses her daughter when she goes away for several months out of the year.” But they break down the unfamiliar into something relatable, something comfortable. Otherwise we are perpetually in fight-or-flight mode, constantly on edge.
To this end, we’ve established rule systems to pass down across generations. The most obvious ones are religion and science, but if you think of the task of rule systems as “give a series of explanations that make life as easy and survivable as possible,” you’ll find even more systems: nationality, ethnicity, even just local communities. Don’t leave the village, don’t eat pork, don’t talk to strangers. The “why” of each rule is different from system to system, but ultimately, they answer questions. The fewer questions in one’s life, the less stress, the easier life. These systems rewire your brain for comfort: you don’t just believe that the sun will rise tomorrow, you know it. Things continue, as they did before you and will after you. The rules persist. In a word, what we’ve created, to tame the chaos of an disorderly world, is a sense of continuity.
What’s interesting to me is the idea of broken continuity. After all, many, many rule systems have risen and fallen across human history. People are adaptable enough to rewire their brains from one rule system to another across their lifetimes. One can go from knowing there is no God to knowing that God exists and loves them in a matter of days. How do we deal with exceptions to the rules — how do our brains adapt to inconsistent rules, to broken continuity?
In thinking about this, I’ve found it’s helpful to think of rule systems as organisms in a process of natural selection. I’ll use Judaism as an example. Judaism was born out of a polytheistic religion, with its central god, Yahweh, declaring war on others like Ba’al Hadad and Dagon by making “I am the only God, there are no others before me” the central tenet of Judaism. By not allowing its followers to even accept the possibility of other gods — in fact, encouraging them to destroy other religions’ priests — Judaism locked its followers into its belief system. It then evolved various laws that kept its followers alive, like “don’t eat pork,” as food preparation was not advanced enough to make it safe.
And what of the cast-off gods? They were remixed, recontextualized, re-explained. Ba’al Hadad and all other gods in that pantheon were recast in Abrahamanic religions as Ba’al Zebub, or Beelzebub, lord of the flies — a demon in later Christian mythology. Dagon’s temples were subject to Jewish vandalism, with followers breaking statues’ legs into fish tail formations, as “dag” is Hebrew for “fish.” Gradually, the image of Dagon became so corrupted that he ended up being envisioned more as a Lovecraftian fish-demon than his original godlike state.
Then Christianity came along and took a different tack than old Judaism’s kill-em-all tendencies: recast them into the fold. Hadad, for example, was variously linked with the storm-god Teshub, the Egyptian god Set, and the Zeus. The nature goddess Eostre (and her associated rabbit-rich fertility holiday), was gradually folded into the larger tradition of Jesus’ resurrection, and Easter was born. Christianity’s very existence is arguably due to such inclusions — how else was it differentiated from Judaism than by its adoption of the idea of a resurrecting god? An idea that was echoed in many other religions. The ranks of saints swelled up with each new religion that Christianity would embrace, with old religions transformed into new states, and continuity was maintained.
(you can extend this idea easily to the concept of comic books as modern-day gods, and the relationship of comic book fans to continuity, but that’s a blog post for another time)
So, what does this all have to do with coping with a couple difficult months?
It’s been about establishing a path to walk. As commonplace as it is for people to live with passed-down rule systems, I find myself without such an inheritance. Although I was raised Jewish, by Jewish law I was Christian (and by Christian law, Jewish). What with the preponderance of alternative religions in my childhood, accepting any of them as a real truth didn’t make much sense. Throughout my childhood, neither parent was on great terms with their families, and so I did not grow up with great sense of genetic heritage. Ethnically, I’m an indeterminate blank slate. Nationally, I don’t identify much as Kentuckian, and only reluctantly as American.
In short, I’m in many senses a series of broken continuities. Many are born with comfortable paths to walk down, roads more traveled. I feel that in many ways I was born out in the weeds, weaving wildly across all paths traveled in my journeys. It’s not that I’m entirely without direction, or that my life is unduly difficult, it’s that I can’t quite subscribe fully to any rule system, or commit myself to an established way of living. That’s not uncommon for anyone, especially in this day and age – I just feel it particularly acutely of late.
I’m weird. And I want to know what that means.
In this case, it means I can’t fall back on a pre-compiled set of wisdom. It means I get to pick and choose, compiling my own collection of answers and parables for my daily life. That’s exciting, although difficult when times themselves, as they have been recently, are difficult.