The Willing Embrace of Chaos

I gave a talk a few weeks ago at the Museum of the Rockies in Bozeman, Montana. The title of the talk was “The Warrior Mindset.”

(Whenever you see the term “warrior” in something written by me, insert/replace it with “writer” or “artist.” In my mind, they’re the same thing.)

In the talk, I cited this passage from the great Israeli general Moshe Dayan. It comes from his 1967 book, Diary of the Sinai Campaign:

Moshe Dayan

To the commander of an Israeli unit, I can point on a map to the Suez Canal and say: “There’s your target and this is your axis of advance. Don’t signal me during the fighting for more men, arms, or vehicles. All that we could allocate you’ve already got, and there isn’t more. Keep signaling your advances. You must reach Suez in forty-eight hours.” I can give this kind of order to commanders of our units because I know they are ready to assume such tasks and are capable of carrying them out.

In Hebrew, the word for chaos is balagan. (It’s actually part-Russian, part-Hebrew.) Its usage goes something like this:

“What was it like, jumping out of that airplane in a thunderstorm?”

“It was a complete balagan!”

Warriors, athletes, stand-up comedians, moms pushing strollers, cops, firemen … they all know that their day can be plunged at any moment into chaos. (Moms perhaps most of all.)

They learn to incorporate this awareness into their mindset.

Some come to live for this chaos. It’s the most fertile and exciting part of their day.

You and I as writers and artists must learn to embrace chaos as well. 

Chaos is a product of Resistance.

Chaos will hit us in Act Two. It’ll hit us at the finish of our novel, our dance, our documentary film.

Chaos = fear. Chaos = mental disorientation. Chaos = confusion.

Can we function in this state? Like that Israeli officer, can we keep pushing forward even when we’re out of touch with higher command and have lost contact with friendly units on all sides? Can we maintain our focus? Can we keep our confidence?

The poet John Keats gave this skill a name. He called it “negative capability.”

… at once it struck me what quality went to form a Man of Achievement, especially in Literature, and which Shakespeare possessed so enormously—I mean Negative Capability, that is, when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason …

Embarking on a new work of fiction or nonfiction, a new startup, a new enterprise of any kind, you and I need to prepare ourselves mentally for periods of chaos. We need to be able to feel our flight suit become drenched with sweat, our own terror-sweat … and still keep flying the plane.

We need to be able function in the midst of a balagan.

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32 Comments

  1. Joe Jansen on November 3, 2021 at 5:29 am

    Quoting Moshe Dayan and John Keats in one post. Tipping my hat.

    Maybe apocryphal, but I’ve read that the Chinese word for “crisis” is a combination of the logograms (words) for “danger” and “opportunity.”

    危机

    • Kate Stanton on November 3, 2021 at 6:13 am

      Nice, Joe! 危机 I’ve been brainstorming lyrics for a song about finding that ever elusive peace of mind lately. The phrase “controlled chaos” kept coming up in the bubble. Maybe I should replace it with danger and opportunity?!
      I close my eyes and imagine what my Resistance looks like in person form. The negative voices in my head take the shame (typo stays) shape of a mean bully. Like a swordsmith crafting layer upon layer of steel to the blade, I will continue forging. I will slice that bitch (shadow self) in half like an artist warrior.

      • Sam Luna on November 3, 2021 at 8:08 am

        Balagan, Joe’s 危机 reference, sweating through my flight suit…. all have been dogging me lately. I came to Writing Wednesdays today hoping for a lift and I found it. It’s Resistance, in a new form, a new shape, a new (as Kate says) shadow. Must learn (again!) to embrace the chaos.

        • Kate Stanton on November 3, 2021 at 8:51 am

          “Must learn (again!) to embrace the chaos.” Your post had me thinking, Sam. We must learn again and again like children. We come to the muse with a childlike heart and open mind.
          Balagan, friends. Thank you, Steve!

      • Brian Nelson on November 3, 2021 at 9:10 am

        Joe/Kate/Sam,
        Your comments frequently provide the ballast I need to continue. Thank you.
        bsn

        • Joe on November 3, 2021 at 12:29 pm

          I owe you a call, B.

  2. Chuck DeBettignies on November 3, 2021 at 6:23 am

    So sweet!
    Facing that chaos is such a private moment. Who wants to admit, even to themselves, that after all you’ve done/work you put into this, it’s exploded into complete chaos?

    Maybe this is like the “all is lost moment” in the hero’s journey. The hero drives forward as an act of will. It’s such a universal, private moment thing we can all relate to. This is the moment when the hero/writer/artist truly becomes a hero, isn’t it?

  3. Brian Nelson on November 3, 2021 at 9:03 am

    Mr Pressfield, the Brian Whisperer, has struck again. (how does he always get in my head?!?!)
    I’ve been thinking about this very topic for the last few weeks–except that I’ve thought of it as ambiguity. Ben Franklin (allegedly) addressed it as well with his quote about, “those who give up essential liberty for temporary security lose both and deserve neither…”

    The ‘deserve’ is a bit harsh, but I understand the sentiment. Of course this has to do with people’s approach to the pandemic, and I am beginning to think that we are genetically pre-disposed one’s comfort with chaos and/or ambiguity.

    I have also been thinking about how this might indicate one’s philosophical/political attitudes. Politics is nothing more than temperament at scale (IMHO), and it seems to me that most people choose safety/security over freedom.

    Employee vs entrepreneur. Producer vs consumer. Mandates vs choice.

    I participated in an ancient tradition earlier this year, facilitated by gifted healers and plant medicine. One of my own insights was that my own ‘need to understand’ is nothing more than my desire to bring order (safety) to chaos. If I understand it–I give myself a false sense of security. Operative word here is false. There is no security. Ever.

    Is it possible to move the needle in one’s own comfort with this? Certainly. I think both the arts and athletics thrust us into this void of chaos. Like most truth bombs Steve delivers here–this training or familiarization with chaos is, well, uncomfortable at best–terrifying, soul-wrenching, painful at worst.

    I think the question becomes how much pain/discomfort are we willing to endure to achieve our best selves?

    Like last week’s post about the pain of athletic training, I do think the pain of fear/uncertainty are closely aligned-maybe even neurological neighbors.

    Jordan Peterson says that the Dragon always holds the gold/virgin…we need to enter the forest at its darkest place.

    Easy to type, much much much harder to implement. The sad truth I’ve come to understand from Pressfield’s ‘open Kimono’ posts is that there is no there there. There is no day when we are not afraid. There is no day when it is not hard. While habits and familiarity hone our ability to confront chaos–it is nearly always with shallow breathing and elevated heart rates.

    Oh–and this just seems too damn obvious to write, but I’ll do it anyway. Connection helps assuage the fear. We can face most things in life when we hold hands with those near us. Writing Wednesdays is how I reach out to grasp the hands of other warriors.
    bsn

    • Kate Stanton on November 3, 2021 at 9:28 am

      Damn good post, Brian! Inspiring. The last paragraph in particular is the Catch 22 of Resistance in the form of a depressive state. The loss of connection to what brings you joy and to others–the one thing I should do when I get this way is reach out, but I often isolate. I wonder if that awful state prepares us to then willingly go into the dark forest? You get despondent enough there is certainly light on the opposite side of the coin, right? We enter the forest on a moonless night and stare the Dragon right in the eye. The only constant is change. My mantra this week. Balagan. Chaos. The only constant is change; embrace it!

      • Brian Nelson on November 3, 2021 at 3:18 pm

        Kate! Thank you. Too kind. I don’t know if this is correct–but I think there might be two states that prepare us to willingly enter the dark forest: 1. Inspiration/courage 2. Desperation. Usually desperation is the kicker…

        To brutally paraphrase Steve’s non-fiction works–I think he states somewhere (should have these quotes committed to memory), but he has never had any choice. It was do the work, or die. Complete the task, or kill oneself. That’s brutal honesty for sure.

        That said, what is it inside of Steve, and all other creatives, that drives one to this degree of desperation? It might be the goodness, the Muse, Divinity, God, the Universe…however one names it..that plants that seed of vision. That creative spark. That desire to manifest what one feels.

        It might be said desperation fed by hope? That may seem counter-intuitive (I’m probably wrong–but trying to answer the question honestly), but the possibility of creating something beautiful, useful, helpful to this planet and its inhabitants that drive creatives to near despair.

        Not pretty, but that’s how I see if from my foxhole.

        Oh–and I listened to Joe Rogan interview Jewel the other day. Her voice can make me weep. The gift of song is the only international language. Kate, your music transcends language. It speaks to everyone, even if we don’t understand the words.
        bsn
        bsn

        • Kate Stanton on November 3, 2021 at 8:19 pm

          This means so much to me! I’m very grateful for those I’ve met here. From one creator to another, Brian — thank you so very much. It’s too late to text my colleague from Latvia for a poetic response in Russian, but I do know this word: спасибо.

          • Joe on November 5, 2021 at 7:51 am

            Spasibo!



  4. Maureen Anderson on November 3, 2021 at 10:40 am

    When we moved into an RV in the Pennsylvania wilderness — an RV so vintage (!) even the big, burly guys who deliver our propane can’t believe we survived a winter in it — I was afraid for all the reasons they’re amazed. A lot can go wrong, put it that way.

    The prospect of moving deeper into the woods (into a cabin on our own property, with far fewer people around) terrifies me.

    It also energizes me. Fear is like that.

    Will I use this version of a balagan as an excuse to avoid my “real” work, or will I bring a better self to that work? Wednesdays are my official check-in days, as it sounds like they are for so many of you.

    • Brian Nelson on November 3, 2021 at 3:38 pm

      Maureen,
      “It also energizes me. Fear is like that.” Brilliantly stated. There is energy in chaos as well. Reminds me of a TOC (tactical operations center): 3-5 radios blaring updates, constantly updating enemy/friendly positions, executing battle drills–or the inside of a tank during gunnery or real battle. It is a controlled chaos.

      You just made me realize that I haven’t created the appropriate battle drills for my own production/life. Battle drills are so helpful. Rehearsed actions to enact when the fan gets hit with a monster turd. The actions remove the fear–or at least mitigate it enough to do something positive while on one’s heals.

      The wisdom I find here never ceases to amaze me.
      bsn

      • Kate Stanton on November 3, 2021 at 8:22 pm

        I agree with Brian! “It also energizes me. Fear is like that.” This is a nugget of wisdom. I get sensory overload some days and bogged down with fear. Usually a kind word from some snaps me out of it—transforming it into energy…like alchemy! I like the sound of it!

    • Joe on November 5, 2021 at 8:12 am

      I have a friend who just got one of these: https://youtu.be/-Oizd7NuYog

      The guy gets me with, “…being able to boondock and still have a comfortable, livable space.”

      • Maureen Anderson on November 5, 2021 at 9:40 am

        Never in my life have I set out on an adventure so many people fantasize about, Joe. We don’t have hot water, we have to walk a few blocks to the “main house” to take a shower, and we don’t dare venture off the rock next to our campsite for fear of ticks or even snakes. Our friends still envy us, though.

        But a van? I have my limits!

        Dreamy is only from a distance.

        • Joe on November 5, 2021 at 10:26 am

          🙂

  5. Bob DeMers on November 3, 2021 at 12:40 pm

    Great post, Steven. Thank you:-)

    In working with my clients in helping them to transform their lives, relationships, careers businesses, etc., this is something I share with them: Imagine you’re being tasked to learn how to fly a plane at 37,000 feet, and having never flown a plane before. Also, imagine that you’re being tasked with building that same plane while at 37,000 feet, without having built a plane before. This is what you’re going to do. And you will be successful at it, if you’re open to it.

    In the midst of infinite disorder, there’s infinite order. Spirit will find you, if you’re open to it. Nothing better than little bit of chaos, to kick-start that engine:-)

  6. Carl Blackburn on November 3, 2021 at 1:01 pm

    I’ve noticed in my life that if I keep moving forward, the doors have always opened ahead of me. I believe that each of us was created with a purpose in our DNA, just as an acorn has a mighty oak tree inside of it, we have a grand purpose within us if we keep moving through resistance towards that purpose. Keep on moving forward.

    • Brian Nelson on November 3, 2021 at 3:20 pm

      Carl,
      Love it. Action. For me, moving isn’t always linear–sometimes forward, sometimes laterally, sometimes tangentially–but for me it is the movement. I am at my worst when I become sedentary.
      bsn

  7. Skip Raschke on November 3, 2021 at 1:04 pm

    thanks steve!

    measuring and applying the zenith and nadir of both chaos and order is how i make a fine living. that is to say, how chaos and order apply to stock prices.

    know that almost, if not All, stock market timing indicators measure chaos (opposite of order), and order (opposite of chaos).

    the rising of the volatility of prices (prices changing rapidly in both price directions–not 1 direction as the unwitting financial media continues to think and present to its audience) eventually leads and ends with the largest measure (in math terms) for each chaotic period.
    the decline of the volatility of prices eventually leads and ends with the smallest measure (in math terms) for each orderly period.
    this is stock market fact, yet the vast majority never gets that memo.

    and, i have 46 years of stock market success to prove my point.

    sr

  8. Jeffrey Earl Warren on November 3, 2021 at 1:15 pm

    Stretch,

    Keats actually described “Negative capability” (the ability to negate one’s ego and become something else) thusly in a letter to Benjamin Baily, “If a sparrow comes upon my window, I take part in its existence and peck at the gravel.” He “leaves his ego” and literally becomes the sparrow. That was to be the essecnce of the poet. To leave his ego and become the thing he was writing about.

    • Brian Nelson on November 3, 2021 at 3:25 pm

      Jeffrey,
      I listened to a podcast with Charles Foster recently. His book is ‘Being Human: Adventures in 40,000 years of Human Consciousness’. I haven’t read it–but he went to actually live like we did at different intervals. The idea is fascinating–and it seems to me he did exactly as you quote Keats. His previous work–again, I haven’t consumed, is ‘Being a Beast’–and he really tried to become certain animals. Again, fascinating.
      bsn

  9. Duncan Hart on November 3, 2021 at 4:15 pm

    Not often you see Moshe Dayan being quoted.

  10. Tolis Alexopoulos on November 4, 2021 at 1:07 am

    Thank you dear Steve and all great Professionals here,

    I feel that all the people here march forward, each alone but also together in an “anti-Resistance” army, if I can use the word, deeply desiring to reach The Destination.

    I can guess that Chaos can be as wide as we allow it to be, as far as we can keep working. And the greater the Chaos becomes, with us still sitting on our work’s chairs, the more immense and unusual paths it will reveal for our work and our character. Paths that have been less travelled upon (if I say it right). You said it all in a phrase, maybe the most important phrase for me: “It’s not the writing part; the most important thing is sitting down to write.”

    If we sit down in the midst of chaos/balagan, then the chaos becomes our ally. If we don’t, then the chaos, our potential ally, was our destroyer. How strange is that!

    It’s all a matter of movement. It’s the basis, and only on it we may build the towers of creation.

    Thank you again.

    • Chuck DeBettignies on November 4, 2021 at 8:13 am

      Anti-Resistance Army!
      Yah!!

      • Kate Stanton on November 4, 2021 at 8:47 am

        I like it! Like an anti-Resistance Army we have each other’s back!

  11. Jurgen Strack on November 4, 2021 at 7:10 am

    Ditto on the feeling energised theme fellow Writing Wednesdays-ers. I’m glad to be a part of it.

    If writing is refined thinking, then surely attempting to sift through the balagan – embracing chaos to make sense of it all – is part of it I feel.

    I like this quote:
    ‘I don’t like writing. I like to have written’.

  12. Susan Setteducato on November 4, 2021 at 9:46 am

    I couldn’t love this more.

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