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Does your life, like mine, sometimes seem like a complete mess – a muddle? Do you wonder how things got that way, and what can be done to un-mess them?
One of my all-time favorite essays – Metalogue: Why Do Things Get in a Muddle? – is a dialogue between Gregory Bateson and his daughter, in a collection of essays called Steps to an Ecology of Mind. A metalogue (meta + dialogue) is a conversation in which the structure of the conversation itself reflects the content being discussed.
I read Bateson’s essay decades ago and recently revisited it, having vividly remembered the question, but not Bateson’s answer. It begins:
Daughter: Daddy, why do things get in a muddle?
Father: What do you mean? Things? Muddle?
Daughter: Well, people spend a lot of time tidying things, but they never seem to spend time muddling them. Things just seem to get in a muddle by themselves. And then people have to tidy them up again.
I think the essay stayed with me because muddling in my own life seems both ubiquitous and mysteriously automatic. It ranges from the mundane to the stupendous. For instance, how many mornings do I walk into my kitchen and recoil, surprised by last night’s forgotten mess? How did I manage to write a text my friend interpreted as the opposite of my meaning? Where are my glasses anyway? Then there is the book I wrote and sent to an interested publisher who after reading it responded, “We do not know what this book is about.”
Now that’s a muddle.
In his essay, Bateson and his daughter pull apart the initial question with silly examples like mixing sand with sugar and scrambling letters to spell a word.
After a time, Bateson comes to the point: order requires effort while messiness does not. Order is specific. It requires both intention and targeted action, while plentiful messiness is easy and everywhere. Bateson’s daughter accuses him of being a “bookmaker” when he finally translates the problem into the simplest terms of probability, “I know that there are infinitely many muddled ways – so things will always go toward muddle and mixedness,” he said.
After thinking about this for a while, I had one of those “Ah Ha!” moments.
Order! That word! I belong to a religion, the Baha’i Faith, whose founder Baha’u’llah called it “the new world order,” and which is guided by democratically-elected institutions called “the administrative order.” I began looking up quotes about this whole question of order and found one in the preface to Baha’u’llah’s Most Holy Book that spells it out:
The features of the “new World Order” are delineated in the Writings of Baha’u’llah and Abdu’l-Baha and in the letters of Shoghi Effendi [the Guardian of the Baha’i Faith] and the Universal House of Justice. The institutions of the present-day Baha’i Administrative Order, which constitute the “structural basis” of Baha’u’llah’s World Order, will mature and evolve into the Baha’i World Commonwealth. In this regard, Shoghi Effendi affirms that the Administrative Order “will, as its component parts, its organic institutions, begin to function with efficiency and vigour, assert its claim and demonstrate its capacity to be regarded not only as the nucleus but the very pattern of the New World Order destined to embrace in the fullness of time the whole of mankind.”
So, to bring about this new world order, “component parts,” the “things” Bateson speaks about, need to “function with efficiency and vigor” and will eventually become both the nucleus and pattern of a new order.
Well, I thought to myself, that is going to take work.
Nothing orderly happens all by itself, as Bateson pointed out. Then another word from the Baha’i writings arose in my mind. The word “strive.” Without “striving” things inevitably “go toward” as Bateson said, the muddle the Baha’i writings call “disunity.”
To strive is to struggle forcefully, labor, sweat, and strain – the exact opposite of quit, give up, retreat, or surrender. When I think back to my messy kitchen, the scrambled text, my lost glasses, and especially my failed book attempt, I see the cause of my muddled-ness – lack of striving. That’s the hooligan: lack of enough effort, focus, and intention. In each of these examples, I became tired, or distracted. I hurried through or simply forgot. I failed to sufficiently strive.
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Ye who are servants of the human race, strive ye with all your heart to deliver mankind out of this darkness and these prejudices that belong to the human condition and the world of nature, so that humanity may find its way into the light of the world of God.
Wherefore, O ye beloved of the Lord and friends of God, arise, and with the whole enthusiasm of your hearts, with all the eagerness of your souls, strive to unfurl the standards of unity in the midmost heart of the world and cause, with valiant might, the ocean of oneness to surge. Thus may the body of humankind be freed from the constraint of these variegated robes and patched garments, and be adorned instead with the sanctified raiment of unity.
Therefore strive that your actions day by day may be beautiful prayers. Turn towards God, and seek always to do that which is right and noble. Enrich the poor, raise the fallen, comfort the sorrowful, bring healing to the sick, reassure the fearful, rescue the oppressed, bring hope to the hopeless, shelter the destitute!
When all this striving threatens to wear us out, Baha’is even have a prayer to remember to pray, a prayer for the “remembrance of God:”
Remembrance of God is like the rain and dew which bestow freshness and grace on flowers and hyacinths, revive them and cause them to acquire fragrance, redolence and renewed charm. “And thou hast seen the earth dried up and barren: but when We send down the rain upon it, it stirreth and swelleth, and groweth every kind of luxuriant herb.” Strive thou, then, to praise and glorify God by night and by day, that thou mayest attain infinite freshness and beauty.
Spiritual striving equals the effort we exert while relying on God to provide the strength, direction, and impetus to make meaningful change. The Baha’i writings make it clear – they do not ask us to have all the answers or be perfect. We’re all human, and are expected to mess up and muddle and fail, but to persevere nonetheless, relying on God to restore our strength and sharpen our resolve to bring forth a new order of peace, prosperity, equality, and justice to this very messy and muddled world.