DO NOT DISTURB


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Strife [polemos] is father to all

[Heraclitus]

We are a glass of water. At the bottom of our glass is a layer of soil, of sediment. Most of the time the glass is still and the sediment remains undisturbed, and most of the time we like it this way. Every now and then, however, the glass gets shaken, and up swirls the sediment, around and around, before settling down at the bottom in a new composition. And again the glass is still, the sediment undisturbed. Sometimes the glass is still for a long time, and we may do our best to keep it that way.

We are a self-corrective system, and we are balanced. Like everything in existence, in order to retain our integrity we must retain our balance. Sometimes, however, we become unbalanced, and this can be a very unsettling state of affairs. If our system is to continue working then we must return to the old balance, or find a new one. But always we must return to balance: this is the dictate of our system.

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When was the last time you were challenged, really challenged?

How did it feel?

Did it feel like you were coming apart, like you didn't know who you were anymore?


Disintegration. Perhaps this is a requisite of the true challenge: that it must, in some way, cause you to fall apart, at least a little.

It may be true that most of the time we are that glass of water; and that our views, our ideas, our habits, our behaviours - all these things of which we are composed - settle like sediment down at the bottom, where they remain, compact and undisturbed. We could call this tranquility "balance," and as with all things, it is the definitive state of affairs. If we are indeed self-corrective systems, then this is the way it must be. Our system works to conserve the truth of certain descriptive statements, to keep us true to an image. To stray from the image - to stray, for example, from "healthy" to "ill" - is to upset the balance, and such a system would not be true to itself if it allowed an unbalance to continue unchecked. Thus, we get well; become "healthy" again, whatever we consider that to be.

What is true for the individual is also true for the collectivity. Our collective assumptions, norms and conventions all settle down in our collective glass.

When we are challenged - really challenged - the glass is shaken, a disturbance that represents a departure from our balance. Shaking up prevents us from petrifying, from becoming too solid. When the sediment is shaken it can break apart and return to the water above, where it can float free. It is reminded of the properties of liquid: of what it is to be loose, and of how it feels to be carried by the current. Indeed, in throwing the system into an "imbalance", shaking also works to remind it of a larger truth: that the stasis of a balanced system can become the torpor of complacency - the rigor-mortis of pertrifaction - and that it must sometimes be thrown into relief against its opposite: that solid must sometimes be reminded of liquid lest it take its "solidity" a little too literally. The autonomy of the individual system is put into perspective, shown that our "balance" - our personal status quo - can sometimes spell imbalance within a larger context.

On a societal level, a challenge - a shaking - is often posed by things within the culture which go "beyond the pale." We know that they have gone beyond because people become "outraged" or "offended." These people represent the voice of balance, a voice that is also within each individual. They are the part of the system that does not want things to change, that wants to preserve the sanctity of its sediments, its solidity. The conservative voice - with its tendency to gather together, to keep things the same - alerts us to the fact that something is happening; that we are being shaken. It is the guardian of our descriptive statements, insisting that we stay true to our image. Through its outrage it works to preserve the status quo, and to neutralise those elements that would unsettle the system.

Whilst its role is an important one, it has a tendency to be short-sighted. It is stuck on the idea of solidity and would keep us that way forever, safe and inert. It is wary of liquid, of its chaotic swirling, its refusal to settle down, take a form. And so, in deference to the larger balance, this voice must always be challenged, its precious solidity always shaken free.

We could see a mark of "maturity" as the ability for a system both to be shaken and to shake itself. Thus, a "mature" system (society or individual) is the one that can withstand the shaking - that can contain things like dissent and transgression - without tipping into a fatal imbalance and falling apart. In a sense, a system, as long as it permits its elements that go beyond, will always be shaking itself up. It is when a system becomes unilateral - narrowing what can be said and done - that it risks rigor-mortis. Those elements that would formerly have worked to maintain its balance are pushed underground - repressed - and a widespread denial takes place. The system becomes both unhealthy and unadaptive; a rock in the evolutionary stream.

For the individual, shaking up becomes a form of mindfulness. It is a ready acceptance of challenge, a monitoring of boundaries and an awareness of assumptions. In many ways, shaking up can run counter to the flow the collectivity, which often encourages us to keep our sediments undisturbed and exalts solidity as the condition par excellence.

With its connotations of disintegration, shaking up is not something that can continue indefinitely. We cannot stay liquid; we must assume a form, strike a pose. Rather, shaking up is a necessary myth, that runs alongside and counter to that other myth: staying the same. If balance is written into our existence, then to work against it - in whatever direction - is to become dysfunctional.

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Sailing the Turbulent Seas
Status Quo