Our worlds have been shaken this year. For some, the shaking has been painful and exacting; confrontational and unyielding. For others, the shaking has been quieter, although still pervasive and consequential.
Order, too, has been shaken—disrupted and questioned; blown apart, even, in some instances.
How do we deal with the chaos and unrest of our worlds shaking? How do we make sense of or at least manage disorder when the ground beneath us still trembles, when our views still tilt and sway from the horizon?
Do we—should we—accept disorder as an unavoidable fact of life? Should we try to understand it all through reflections on and comparisons with the past? Should we make sense of it by trying to analyze and make predictions about its effects on the future?
Reflecting on the past manages disorder only when the disorder of the present resembles the disorder of the past. This can be, at best, only partially the case for any of us right now. The disorders of today are novel and unfamiliar.
As the strangeness of the present disorder persists and its end seems further and further away; as predictions of the future become graver and more fearsome; as we are bound by the impossibility of ever predicting the future with total surety — we remain unable to quiet disorder.
Merely accepting disorder is impractical. Doing so would be to accept a constant feeling of being suspended in immovable states of monotony, confusion, valuelessness or meaninglessness. In such states, we wouldn’t be at all compelled, let alone inspired, to do anything useful or good for our communities, families, or ourselves. A society can’t properly function if a great majority of its members were to accept life as such—would collapse upon itself.
Aside from a society functioning properly—or at least for it to function at all in the near future—simply accepting disorder is impractical because, as humans, we are not naturally inclined to disregard thoughts of order. Although we might for some time, the existences of art, literature, music, education, politics and scientific endeavors suggest that we care for order a great deal, and that we consider certain ideas of beauty, identity and morality as inseparable from ideas of order.
So where does that leave us? “…It would be enough / If we were ever, just once, at the middle, fixed / In This Beautiful World of Ours and not as now, / Helplessly at the edge, enough to be / Complete…” writes Wallace Stevens. That seems to be our predicament now: forced to an edge by overwhelming disorder while trying to assume a form of constancy—a sort of order—that agrees with our personhood; and that agrees with our inclinations towards beauty and completion.
Yet we are not stuck at that edge. For those ideas of beauty, identity and morality which for us are inseparable from ideas of order have immutable qualities, “fixed / In This Beautiful World of Ours.” Seeking manifestations of these qualities in unfamiliar present moments and recognizing our own abilities and aptitudes as parts and extensions of their immutability fixes us in the middle.
The middle is not a place where we are forgetful of the past, without curiosity about the future or oblivious to the present. Rather, it is a place of order and constancy that grounds us in present moments amidst shaking, despite lingering incompletions from the past and a hazy knowledge of the future.
In another poem, Wallace Stevens writes: “She sang beyond the genius of the sea /…The sea was not a mask. No more was she… / Even if what she sang was what she heard… / The grinding water and the gasping wind; / But it was she and not the sea we heard. / For she was the maker of the song she sang…”
The girl in Stevens’ poem sings beyond the unrest and chaos of the immeasurable and unknown depths of the sea’s knowledge and force. She is not above the sea; she is not unaffected by it. Yet she sings with her own voice. She sings of what is permanent and unchanging in beauty and power beyond the disorder of the sea.
We, too, can think of, look and sing beyond disorder. For our minds and sight, for our voices—it is a necessary foray, beyond the genius of the sea.