Chaos, Order and Religion

So we all know I’m a Jordan Peterson geek.  Actually, disciple is probably a better word.  I’ve read 12 Rules for Life twice and just started it again on audio because cleaning out my bathroom cabinets was too grim a task to face alone. 

If you’re not familiar with Peterson’s work, he writes at length about the existential meaning found between the boundaries of Order (the known) and Chaos (the unknown.)  Order represents rules, structure, and reason; order is what makes sense and makes us feel safe.  It is generally associated with the Masculine. (Think a well-run army or efficient factory line.)

Chaos, on the other hand, is everything we don’t understand.  It is darkness and mystery and the richness of possibility. It is the tangled jungle from which Order is drawn; it is where the Idea For Everything gestates before birth. Chaos is what doesn’t make sense and makes us uneasy.  But it is also what makes us curious and excited and creative. It is generally associated with the Feminine. (“Mother Nature” is Chaos itself; unexplored, powerfully creative, untamed by order.)  

In the yin yang symbol of the Tao, Order is the white yang and Chaos is the black yin, opposite serpents that forever wind their way back to each other.  One can’t live without the other; one is not superior to the other—though at first glance you might assume Order to be the boss. Not so. Without Chaos, Order would have nothing to organize; it could not create.  The army wouldn’t have anything to fight for; the factory line, nothing to produce. And so the Taoists had it right a millennia ago: we can find meaning in our lives only when we walk the line between the two serpents, when we balance Order and Chaos.  And we must have Meaning—capital M—to make life worth living.  

Look around and you’ll start seeing Order and Chaos coupled in everything that’s purposeful and lasting:  good music (think harmonic discord), a solid marriage (guess who’s Order and who’s Chaos in mine), even our system of government:  e pluribus unum—out of many (chaos), one (order.)  Democracy doesn’t just make order out of chaos, its order is dependent on chaos, because rules are drawn from the mess of different ideas.  That’s what keeps it from Tyranny (too much yang) or Anarchy (too much yin.) 

And so what about religion?  Does it fall under the same mandate?  This morning, while getting ready for church, I wondered.  I started thinking about how Order and Chaos might apply to religion—my own in particular and all religion in general.  I mention going to church because I realized as I was blow drying my hair (which is when I do my best thinking), that in most established religions, Church is the Order.  Church is structure and boundaries and ritual; Church is tradition and authority and assurance. But Church alone doesn’t give religion enough meaning to last, at least not beyond childhood.   

And so I thought, if Church—tangible, patriarchal, known—is religion’s Order, what is the Chaos—intangible, matriarchal, unknown—it complements and contends with?  After much wondering and much blow drying, I came to the conclusion that it must be faith.

Faith:  that elusive, almost indefensible quality we stake so much on yet can barely define.  Faith is influence instead of authority, a mist instead of a mallett.  It unnerves us while it comforts us. It’s the heady, hidden backdrop behind every pattern and every prayer; the reason behind the ritual, the yin to the yang.  It’s Chaos. And it is necessary—it is crucial—to a lasting conversion.  Because without it, the Order of Church is found meaningless.

Lately, people are dropping like flies from any and all religion and we can list a million reasons why.  But two big ones stand out to me: they’re either appalled by religion’s Order or terrified of its Chaos.  We hear the claim from both sides:

“Church is too oppressive, too traditional, too patriarchal…” 


“Faith is too irrational, too naive, too illiterate…”

It seems we either can’t abide by the rules or can’t buy into the belief.  Church restricts the rebel; faith condescends the intellectual. And if you fall somewhere in between, just pick your poison and it will show you out religion’s door.

But think of someone you know who has, to the best of their ability, lived their religion—with all of its rules and responsibilities.  I bet their life isn’t all Order; I bet they have a lot of Chaos in it. Meaning, I bet they’ve attended Church while attending to their faith.  They’ve learned to walk that line between the beauty of Ideal and the blight of Reality, between seeing blessings and seeing obstacles.  They’ve balanced Chaos and Order and found Meaning within. They might not have found ease or even happiness, but they’ve found Meaning—which sticks around a lot longer than happiness.  

I’ve long thought faith was given to us as a kind of personal improvement exercise, to test our devotion and keep us humble until we are given All The Answers To Everything In The End.  But now I wonder: is it possible that, in the end, we really won’t get all the answers, because unlocking her mysteries would make faith cease to be Faith?  She’d no longer exist and we’d be left with nothing but Church. We’d have Order without Chaos, yin without yang, religion without meaning.  If Faith ceased to exist, wouldn’t Church have to follow?  On the other hand, for Church to stand forever—which we’re assured it will—wouldn’t Faith have to stand forever too?  And for Faith to stay faith, wouldn’t she always—eternally—have to retain an element of the unknown?  Might it be that somethings are never to be understood, even in the hereafter?  It’s an unsettling thought, but kind of a cool one.

Maybe our exercise in faith is really a devotion to Faith, and all that she requires of us—alongside her partner, Church, and all that he requires of us.   For just as Church without Faith won’t keep us committed, neither will Faith without Church. That results in a generation which defines itself as “spiritual but not religious,” whatever that means.  (We get to choose whatever that means, depending on the day. I think that’s the unfortunate point.)

Humility is a word heard often among the devoted, but I think it’s a largely misunderstood one.  Sure, it means being meek, but it also means being comfortable with the fact that we don’t know everything there is to know.  Shoot, we hardly know anything.  That’s why humility’s so hard; that’s why we need it so much.

So if you are struggling with your faith, if you are losing interest in your church, if you are disappointed with religion—and every single one of us is, at one time or another—let’s take that humility out for a spin.  Let’s get comfortable with the fact that we don’t know everything there is to know.  Let’s leave the crowd behind and take a walk down that road between Chaos and Order.  It will mean shaking hands with Known and Unknown, Reason and Mystery, Certainty and Possibility.  It will also mean finding Rules along with Freedom, Commandments along with Love, Expectations along with Acceptance.  

It’s a tough route; it’s not in our nature to take it.  But people can. We can.  And when we do, we get to see and hear everything:  the safety of Church and the exhilaration of Faith, the patriarchy of structure and the matriarchy of creation, the Known and the Unknown, the Chaos and the Order, the stunning harmonic discord of it all.  We get to experience a life of Meaning. It’s heavy and it’s hard, but it’s full and it’s fascinating. It’s grounded in reality and rich with possibility. It’s the good life, the only life. It’s the life for us.

I’ve got a blank space baby.

Tomorrow, I will drive my daughter—the second of my three children—eight hundred miles to her freshman dorm, hug her goodbye, and drive back home without her.

I’m trying to picture my life after she’s gone, and it looks to me something like this:

Except in my mind, the blank space goes on forever.  I know this is not accurate–or so they tell me. But it’s how I feel. 

I once read how a mother’s child isn’t just someone she loves, it’s a place that she goes.  Her child is her home. How beautifully true when her children are young; how devastatingly true when they are grown.  The very place we feel trapped in at the beginning is where we’re desperate to return to at the end.  

I dropped a friend off at her home last week and her teenage daughter–all blond-ponytailed and summertime glow–met her on the lawn.  She made a gesture toward the dog and said something to her mom and they both started laughing. Their backs were to me and I was glad, watching a moment longer than I should have.  Their chatter rose across the yard then fell silent on my windshield, barring me entry to their private world of mother-child. I drove home in the baked gold of late afternoon and though I didn’t mean to, I started to cry.

I thought it would be easier letting my second child go.  Practice and all that, right? Nope, not easier. Not at all.  Because after my first left, and I’d felt all the feels, I finally settled into new territory:  the Land of the Changing Family.  It took some time but I ‘d made peace with it. I’d built a new home and I felt safe there.  But now, as Child Two follows Child One out into the world, I’m once again exiled—banished from her gaggle of friends bursting through the front door, noisy Sunday dinners and crusty cereal bowls left in the sink after a midnight laughfest.  She acts like it’s no big deal, this Child Two–picking up and leaving and taking my hard-won territory with her.

Which leaves me alone with Child Three, in all his charming and boyish abundance.  I’ve found solace in that steaming mass of white hair since he was three, and for that I am thankful.  (Is it the hair that makes the head hot, or the other way around? Mysteries.) I suppose–I know–that the trick to all this is finding a new home with just him in it.  It’s always been there, overlapped with his sisters’, but now it will stand on its own. Surely it’s a home with light and heat, songs and jokes, and will offer me the refuge I seek. Because whether we have one child or ten, they fill up our lives like a vacuum, exacting our love to distraction.  A mother’s devotion has never  been determined by numbers.  Thank goodness.

And that must be the blessing in the heap of all this change, that we get to peel layers off of the family stack and discover the wonders of the individual.  We get to move, once again, into a new home. It means leaving the old one and wow is that painful. But we’ve done it before and we’ll do it again and we’ll be markedly better for it.  After all, we’re only here, today, because our own parents—ages ago—allowed us to up and leave them. We took their homes and their youth and their hearts away with us, but still they let us go. 

I’m glad that they did. I’m glad that they did and I’m glad that I’m here and I’m glad that I was given the chance to walk the sunlit path of Growing Up. I needed that adventure and so do my children.  So I am determined.  I will take a deep breath, cry a little in the afternoons, and give it to them.  






(p.s. they better appreciate it.)

Teens, sleep and the prefrontal cortex

What’s with teens and sleep?  My gosh.

At our house, it’s becoming something of a medical concern.  My 18 year-old daughter can sleep all night, all day, during school, after school, during dinner, and in the car.  (When I’m driving, not her. Although at this point who knows.)

My 14 year-old son is no better.  Once upon a time he was our little guy who ran out of his room at seven o’clock on a Saturday morning, eager to start his day of play.  But on the eve of his thirteenth birthday—at the stroke of midnight, I could swear it—all natural morning vigor was lost and the following day he slept until noon.  We thought he was dead. Then, to our disappointment, we realized he was just becoming a teenager.

Summer has brought it to a whole new level.  What used to be Saturday Sleeping has now become Every Day Sleeping, and I’m not afraid to tell you that something might be wrong with my children.

Look, I get it.  Their bodies are growing, their hormones are raging, and their prefrontal cortex functions like that of a toddler’s while their appetite skyrockets to that of a caveman’s.  (Forget the Neanderthal Man, why aren’t we studying the American Teen in biology?  Their developmental patterns are as mysterious and research subjects more abundant.)  These people are subhuman, I’m telling you.

And because they are subhuman, I’m willing to allow that they need sleep that exceeds the normal human range.  Instead of eight hours per night, the teenager needs ten. Twelve even. Okay, fine. It’s sweaty and smelly and obnoxious, but I’ll give it ‘em.

But here’s where I get confused:  how is that after sleeping, let’s say, from midnight to noon—a full twelve hours—they heave out of bed like the walking dead, flop into the shower, drag themselves to two hours (two hours—the injustice!) of church, then deem it necessary to come home and take a four hour nap.  Friends and fellow parents, I do not understand this.

A day boasts 24 hours.  If sixteen of those hours are spent sleeping, the American Teen/Neanderthal (Teenanderthal?) is left with eight hours in which to live their life.  Subtract four of those hours for eating, another two for makeup-ing (girls), flexing in front of the mirror (boys), trying on nine different outfits and examining their nose for whiteheads and you’re down to two skimpy hours remaining.  These are quickly swallowed up by Insta and Snapchat, leaving our beloved teenager exactly zero hours in the day for developing said prefrontal cortex—you know, that part of the brain that determines little things like personality development, decision making, and moderating social behavior.  I think you know where I’m going with this.  

So here’s my question:  why are we letting these cortex-less people drive at age sixteen and vote at age eighteen?  Instead of requiring proof of age for these privileges, I move that law requires proof of a fully developed prefrontal cortex.  Before a driver’s license or voter registration card is issued, a signed medical release and high-resolution scan of the Developed Cortex must be submitted.  The upside? You and I could sit back and watch our youth denied driving and voting. The downside? We’d have to keep chauffeuring their sorry non-cortexes around town and the Democrats would never win another election. It would come at a cost, but it might be worth it.  I’m just saying.

It’s not that my kids are bad people.  It’s not that I don’t like them. It’s not that their rooms smell like a garbage dump when I walk in at the premature hour of eleven o’clock in the morning to timidly nudge them and softly—oh so softly—whisper, “Honey?  I think it’s time you started waking up…” only to have them slump violently away from me, shove the covers over their head, and wail to the ceiling with the anger of the gods.  

Like gods, they are fierce and terrible.  And like any mortal, I fear for my life before them.  And so I step away from the bed in silence and tiptoe backwards out of the room, hoping they’ll stay asleep long enough to forget I dared entry into their domain.  Twelve o’clock…one o’clock…two o’clock…dream away, my darlings, dream away.  Please just don’t kill me.