“A problem well put is half-solved.”John Dewey (1859 – 1952)
An Invisible World
In my last post, I bring up the idea of analyzing hero myths for commonalities in order to find traits that would bring us success in any pursuit we choose.
What a mouthful.
I specifically brought up The Osiris Myth and how that story illustrates the power of attention. This post is going to focus on another powerful aspect of the hero of heroes, speech.
Similar to attention, speech is highly overlooked.
In Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, renowned Israeli historian, Yuval Noah Harari, provides a beautiful timeline of history. It starts from matter and energy appearing marking the dawn of physics and takes us all the way to the present and into a potential future. In this timeline, we see different human species appear and either evolve or die out. Obviously, we know how this story ends. Us, the homo sapiens, end up dominating the planet.
But why? What makes homo sapiens the dominant human species?
Harari argues that is it our unique ability to communicate through complex language. Homo sapiens were the only human species that were capable of communicating on a massive scale. That gives us a huge advantage over the other species. That combined with our unprecedented cognitive abilities makes us the most powerful creatures on earth.
Everything we do on this planet is created by us and our ability to communicate through complex language. Yuval talks about this idea of human beings living in two worlds simultaneously; the real tangible world and the “imaginary” world of conversation. I like to think of this “imaginary” world as the world of conversation, speech, or logos rather than “imaginary.” Referring to this world as imaginary carries implications that it’s not real. If anything, the world of conversation is more real than the tangible world.
From my experience and observations, unless overridden by conscious free will, the human being primarily lives in the world of conversation. We experience our lives as a narrative, a conversation, but we also create things external to us in that conversational world.
Let me explain using businesses as an example.
Businesses in society are not physical entities, but a conversation we are having with one another.
In Sapiens, Harari brings up Google to illustrate this point. If we were to destroy the Google headquarters, would Google disappear? No, it wouldn’t because we could rebuild it.
If we replaced all the people who worked for Google with a whole new batch of people, would Google disappear? No, not really. It might be a different company, but it could still very well be Google as we know it.
This little thought experiment is fun because it highlights the fallacies in thinking that we live in a purely physical and tangible world. Google exists in the world of conversation and because of that, we could destroy the things that represent Google in the real world, and Google could still exist.
I argue that the conversations that we’re apart of matters much more than where we are in the physical world. I’ve seen happy people in terrible places and I’ve seen miserable people in beautiful places. What determines their happiness or misery is the conversation they’re in.
People live in conversations.
Businesses are conversations. Relationships are conversations. Jobs are conversations.
Sometimes we add tangible symbols to keep the conversation boundaries clear in the physical world. We see this in things like wedding rings or uniforms. Nothing changes physically when someone gets married, but we all understand that there’s still a huge transformation that takes place. When someone changes from fiance to wife or husband, there’s a transformation in the conversation & the way we act changes along with that conversation. We symbolize that change in the physical world with wedding rings, marriage certificates, and other things.
When my girlfriend and I first started dating, nothing changed physically, but we started changing how we behaved because things have changed in the world of conversation.
The same thing happened when I became an EMT. Nothing changed physically, except maybe a few neural pathways. I was physically the same person, but the conversation I participated in was different.
We create the world with our language. Change the conversation, change the world.
I know this idea seems a little extreme, but it seems like the Mesopotamians understood this as well.
This story depicts how the Mesopotamians believed the world came to be and the origins of the first men. It’s one of the oldest stories known to man and it is filled to the brim with powerful and timeless lessons. I’ll be interjecting with some analysis in italics throughout the story.
It begins with Tiamat, the goddess of saltwater, and Apsu, the god of freshwater coming together in the Tigris and Euphrates rivers to create the world, Mesopotamia.
Tiamat is more than just the goddess of saltwater, she is also the mother of everything and the goddess of Chaos. Together, Tiamat and Apsu populated Mesopotamia with young gods.
Tiamat is the archetypical representation of the anima. She is the chaos from which life springs and Apsu is the penetrative decisive force necessary to keep them alive. In some ways, Apsu is the archetypical old wise king, the positive masculine, and the animus.
There are also representations of Tiamat and Apsu drawn as serpents wrapped around each other and look eerily similar to DNA. How the Mesopotamians knew that is way beyond me.
As time goes on, the young gods become troublesome and begin to act recklessly. One night, the young gods disturb Apsu while he’s sleeping. In his frustration, Apsu tells Tiamat that they need to destroy the younger gods because they weren’t acting properly. Tiamat disagrees with Apsu and urges to protect the young gods, but it was too late. Ea, (a god of knowledge, mischief, and sweet water) discovered Apsu’s plan to destroy the young gods and sends him into an eternal sleep, death.
Naturally, the younger generations start acting in ways that the judgemental farther (animus archetype) does not approve of. Apsu doesn’t believe his creations are bringing order to the chaos, judges them accordingly, and wants to destroy them as a result. Not surprising considering that the animus archetype either protects or destroys. Of course, like any good mother, Tiamat strives to protect her children (a hallmark anima trait) but in the end, the young gods end up destroying Apsu, the order of the old.
Younger generations are constantly looking to understand the world around them and older generations are constantly working to give them answers. The issue arises when the younger generation doesn’t see the value in the old ways. Perhaps the old ways of doing things are outdated and need to be changed. Perhaps the new ways of doing things aren’t the best and the young people who practice these methods are doomed to repeat mistakes of the past. Either way, there is a mismatch between the young and old and it almost always results in the young destroying the old ways.
So what happens when we destroy what our predecessors have given us?
Tiamat hears of Apsu’s death and is furious. She creates an army of monsters to destroy the young gods in retribution for the death of Apsu. She places Qingu, one of the few gods she trusts, as head of the army and gives him the Tablet of Destinies to wear as a breastplate. The Tablet of Destinies was the story of the world and what was written on the tablet is what happened. Because of this, the tablet gave Qingu immense power.
Tiamat’s rage echos themes of flood myths that can be found all over the world. In most cultures, you can find a myth of a great flood wiping out the world. In this story, Tiamat doesn’t necessarily drown the world but she is the goddess of chaos and saltwater and her will is to destroy the world because it has become too corrupt.
The young gods are terrified of Tiamat’s wrath and know that they cannot defeat her despite their powers, so they elect a champion, Marduk, to fight on their behalf. Marduk had eyes all around his head and could speak magic words. He was the only god who was brave and strong enough to take on this battle. He made a deal with the younger gods and told them that if he defeated Tiamat, then they must make him king of the gods and give him the Tablet of Destinies.
Marduk, the hero of the gods, the only opportunity to overcome chaos, harnesses the power of attention and speech.
I think this idea is so powerful. The only way we can have a fighting chance to triumph over chaos is through our attention and speech.
Also, the younger gods are also willing to give him the Tablet of Destinies if he can defeat chaos. How cool? The hero that uses their powers of attention and speech to overcome chaos, will determine what happens in the world. The will of the hero can surpass the will of the gods, so to speak. The hero will no longer be under the influence of the gods and can create the world in his image.
So Marduk went to war. He armed himself with a net and a sword. The battle was long and difficult. The more Marduk would attack Tiamat the stronger she became. She grew more monstrous with every swing of his sword. Tiamat takes the form of a dragon and begins destroying everything around her, but Marduk doesn’t quit. Eventually, he catches Tiamat in his net and chops her into pieces.
From her body, Marduk creates the sky and the earth. From her blood, he creates the first man tasked to be servants of the gods with the responsibility to maintain order and keep chaos at bay.
So Marduk, the hero, confronts chaos with his net and his sword. This is particularly interesting because this is similar to how we psychologically grasp the unknown. When we are confronted with something that we don’t know, we try to grab for a general understanding (the net), then learn the details in pieces (the sword). I like to use this idea to study better, creating a general knowledge frame to understand something then learning the details after makes learning really complicated concepts much more manageable. I talk about this in my post, Strategies of Better Studying (Part 3).
When Marduk when to war with Tiamat she grew stronger with every attempt to contain her and eventually began destroying everything around her. When we confront chaos, it will get ugly and things will be destroyed, but persistence will be the only way victory. Finding the balance to know which is tolerable destruction and which is irreparable damage is difficult, but solace can be found knowing that things will get ugly.
Notice how in the end humans are created from Tiamat (life; the anima) and the thing that harnesses attention and speech. I think this shows that the Mesopotamians noticed that a part of us, human beings, had powers like Marduk but was placed in bodies created from Tiamat.
I’ve also heard versions where the people were created from the blood of Qingu. I think that’s an interesting take on the story and also carries wisdom, but I’m not going to dive too deep into that here.
Not only were we created from the same thing that created everything else, but we were also tasked to serve the gods and mediate between chaos and order. This gave the Mesopotamians an understanding of why we felt controlled by things beyond us at times. Like jealousy or lust. The Mesopotamian gods represent a lot of what modern people would call emotional states. Carl Jung said when we stopped believing in the gods, we put them inside of us.
It is also our job to be like Marduk and maintain the balance between chaos and order. If we do, we get to be like Marduk. Access to the Tablet of Destinies and be king of the gods. This is an idea I think the Mesopotamians really captured well: the hero who maintains a proper balance between chaos and order will determine what happens in the world and will not unwillingly fall to the influence of their emotions or primal instincts.
Similar to Marduk, human beings speak magic words. We use our speech to craft the world around us and it’s truly magical how it happens. What we say has a very real impact on the world as we know it. From the story, we know that the hero who harnesses speech and attention and willingly confronts chaos gets to determine what happens. This is a powerful lesson, but that leaves us with an important question:
What does it mean to harness speech?
I don’t have a clear cut answer, but I think it’s something like understanding that there is immense power in what we say but to take it further and to use that power to confront potential and bring about our will.
Harnessing speech requires a focusing of attention on our language.
How we phrase things is how we understand them.
Harnessing speech involves practicing multiple iterations of phrasing ideas while refining the meaning more accurately each time.
Harnessing speech involves practicing specificity.
From my experience, whenever I’ve experienced frustration or irritation, it comes from a lack of specificity or too much generality. For example, when I was first working on my YouTube channel I was frequently frustrated because there were so many little decisions to make. I had no idea where to start and the whole thing seemed like a terrible idea.
But then I started writing down the issues down one by one. What’s the font for my brand? What is my logo? What are the structures to the beats? What are my upload days? What genre of music am I making?
Slowly, the task became less and less frustrating.
I had to focus and articulate the chaos into something small and actionable.
Once I started doing that, there was another layer of specificity. What font size should I use? What are my brand colors? What are the titles of the videos I’m uploading? What time am I uploading?
I felt like Marduk throughout the whole process — slowly cutting the chaos into smaller and smaller pieces using my speech. The way we overcome chaos is through using our language to break up the overwhelming monster into manageable pieces.
So this poses the question: if the Meopotampians meant this, then why didn’t they just say it?
Again, not a perfect answer but I think it’s because language development is a long and difficult process. The Mesopotamians saw this lesson. They knew it to be true. But they could not say it outright because we, as a human race, did not have enough iterations to be able to clearly spell out that message. We can today because we’ve had thousands of years to be able to retell the story, refining the message with every rep.
This also mirrors the battle between Marduk and Tiamat. The battle was long, but after a while, Marduk was able to capture the Tiamat (chaos, the unknown) and chop it up. The Meopotampians captured this idea, so to speak, but we have been able to chop it up and understand it on a deeper and clearer level.
Over time, messages from the great myths become clearer and clearer, provided that the ones confronting the unknown are harnessing their powers of attention and speech in a responsible and constructive way.
I’ve seen this to be true in writing too. The age-old phrase that I’m learning to accept captures it perfectly — writing is rewriting. I used to think that writers just wrote down whatever they wanted to write the first time through, but I’m starting to see that there are significant differences between the first iteration of something and the 10th or 20th.
I try to embrace the idea and use it to write my blog. I usually write something that barely makes any sense at first, then I try to make it clearer with each rewrite.
This blog post literally started as “Mesopotamian God Story – the being that confronts chaos is the thing that chooses the destiny – articulation – logos – speech.” As you can see, I’ve fleshed it out a bit more.
Another place I’ve seen this idea is in Napoleon Hill’s fantastic book, Outwitting the Devil. It’s on my Must-Read Book List. In his book, he talks about the importance of definitive purpose and how it is what separates the drifters from the non-drifters. The act of defining purpose is a form of harnessing speech. Defining purpose requires us to use language to carve out exactly what we want from the unknown. Creating or defining purpose is a great way to get people to consciously grab hold and actively participate in the world of conversation, especially if they don’t have the vocabulary to do so.
I also think it’s worth mentioning that our brains have systems for dealing with environments that they don’t understand, I talk a little about this in my post The Brain vs. The Mind (Part 1). These systems in our brains are primarily associated with negative emotion. We experience negative emotion when we find ourselves in places that we don’t know how to navigate (chaotic environments). When we’re in predictable environments, we experience positive emotion. Like the humans created in the story, we must manage the balance between chaos and order. We get access to positive emotion from confronting the chaos and turning it into order through harnessing speech and focused articulation.
This is something that I try to actively practice, especially in highly stressful or overwhelming times. Believe it or not, one great way to practice this is to create checklists. Whenever I feel like a challenge is too much to overcome, I emulate Marduk and chop the great dragon into little actionable tasks. This simplifies the situation, instead of trying to control for all the variables, my task becomes one easy thing — cross things off the list.
I recommend checking out The Checklist Manifesto by Atul Gawande. It’s a beautifully written piece on the hidden (an extremely underrated) powers of checklists. It’s really cool to see how using checklists can completely eradicate mistakes and move projects along faster. He also goes over what makes checklists effective and what makes them more trouble than their worth. Using checklists to practice harnessing speech is so powerful. Just keep in mind that more accurate articulation comes from multiple reps, the first checklists you make aren’t going to be very good.
When it comes to being an effective student, determining what you need to get accomplished or what you need to learn is a fantastic way to practice harnessing speech.
What we say creates who we are. We see this in jobs and our relationships with people. I try to make this known with my students — the only reason they see me as a tutor is that we agree that in the world of conversation, I am a tutor. There is nothing that’s physically different between me and them (except a few neural pathways). I find that this helps them feel like they could learn the material too, despite their failures in the past. It also humanizes me and makes me more relatable. When I’m tutoring I find that things run smoother if my student sees me as similar to them rather than some “math guy” who knows the answer all the time.
Our language plays such a huge role in the world we participate in. I don’t like to write about what people ought to do, but we should treat our powers of speech with respect and use it to build a better place for everyone.
“Life punishes the vague wish and rewards the specific ask.”Tim Ferriss (1977 – )