Wherefore Art Thou Worde?
Reflections, Introspections & Projections
Illo by dangerlam
Yesterday was my birthday, tomorrow is New Year’s Eve—and today I still don’t know what my Word will be for the year ahead.
As the wizard behind The ‘Choose One Word’ Ritual of Becoming, one might think I ought to have had it all figured out by now. I’m close, and yet… it’s just not quite there yet. And these are not trifling matters. It is at this time of the year we:
- Reflect upon the year that was;
- Introspect upon who we are;1 and
- Project (or contemplate) upon who we might become—casting forth a nebulous sense of ‘potential selfness’ into the unknowable future, to imagine-into what coherence we might fabricate, and what disposition might be most apt.
These elements of reflecting, introspecting and projecting (RIP) are the foundational elements of The Ritual of Becoming.
And whilst The Ritual can be undertaken at any point in the year, this is collectively when many of us—to varying degrees—are blessed with some time amongst friends and away from the usual patterns of work. This gives us some vantage and perspective. This is where we can allow our ‘past self’ (who we are, up until this moment) to effectively ‘rest in peace’ (RIP)—whilst our emergent self takes all the learning, insight, wit and wisdom into the next chapter of our unfurling.
My use of the motif ‘RIP’ is intentional here. Ours is now a world that does not compost. Nothing decays on the internet. There is no death; and thus no rebirth. It is instead preserved in its own haunting undeath. And yet—pending how entangled we have become—it is still quite possible to circumvent this. It requires living outside of the internet—whilst at the same time cultivating a playfully amused disposition within it.
This isn’t always easy.2 Most paradoxical dances aren’t—yet this is where we are most alive. As Taleb quips; ‘Difficulty awakens the genius’. We don’t actually want things to be easy—much as we pretend we do. We thrive, flourish and grow when challenged.3
And thus my challenge now, genuinely, is to ‘Choose One Word’ to serve as a fuzzy contextual beacon in the year ahead. And this means I must confront the irony of my own exquisite fabrications of expertise, by actually doing what I teach others to do. 😅
I am finding this particularly challenging this year as it seems like the ‘lessons’ from my ‘Year of the Bard’ have only just began to download. And much, as it were, by happenstance.
Kim and I have become incredibly fond of Street Libraries—little shrines dedicated to pre-loved books, ready for your serendipitous enrichment. Admittedly, most of the books in such shrines are the woeful embodiments of cringe4—yet sometimes, wondrously, the most exquisitely apt books can be found. The beauty of these books, perhaps, is that they (mostly) manifest outside of any algorithmic filtering. Thus—if we have our acuity and affinity attuned—we might sometimes find sources of Insight that supplant and disrupt our defaults in the most sublime manner.
The book I recently found was none other than the Nigerian poet Ben Okri’s A Way of Being Free. It had me fall in love with my current Word again—right on the eve of putting it to rest. I have been reading as though possessed; it gives voice to the unspoken yearning I had otherwise been grasping for amidst the assimilation of my Word ‘bard’ this year. Here is an excerpt that I am sure borders on copyright infringement.
The earliest storytellers were magi, seers, bards, griots, shamans. They were, it would seem, as old as time, and as terrifying to gaze upon as the mysteries with which they wrestled. They wrestled with mysteries and transformed them into myths which coded the world and helped the community to live through one more darkness, with eyes wide open and hearts set alight.
I can see them now, the old masters. I can see them standing on the other side of the flames, speaking in the voices of lions, or thunder, or monsters, or heroes, heroines, or the earth, or fire itself – for they had to contain all voices within them, had to be all things and nothing. They had to have the ability to become lightning, to become a future homeland, to be the dreaded guide to the fabled land where the community will settle and fructify. They had to be able to fight in advance all the demons they would encounter, and summon up all the courage needed on the way, to prophesy about all the requisite qualities that would ensure their arrival at the dreamt-of land.
The old masters had to be able to tell stories that would make sleep possible on those inhuman nights, stories that would counter terror with enchantment, or with a greater terror. I can see them, beyond the flames, telling of a hero’s battle with a fabulous beast—the beast that is in the hero.
The storyteller’s art changed through the ages. From battling dread in word and incantations before their people did in reality, they became the repositories of the people’s wisdom and follies. Often, conscripted by kings, they became the memory of a people’s origins, and carried with them the long line of ancestries and lineages. Most important of all, they were the living libraries, the keepers of legends and lore. They knew the causes and mutations of things, the herbs, trees, plants, cures for diseases, causes for wars, causes of victory, the ways in which victory often precipitates defeat, or defeat victory, the lineages of gods, the rites humans have to perform to the gods. They knew of follies and restitutions, were advocates of new and old ways of being, were custodians of culture, recorders of change.
These old storytellers were the true magicians. They were humanity’s truest friends and most reliable guides. Their role was both simple and demanding. They had to go down deep into the seeds of time, into the dreams of their people, into the unconscious, into the uncharted fears, and bring shapes and moods back up into the light. They had to see clearly, they had to see even what they hadn’t seen, and make it more real to us than our most ordinary or most frightening experiences. They lived lives of intense sacrifice, placing their psyches, dreams, hungers, and their lives on the alter of listening, seeing, sensing, confronting. And then they had to render all they had witnessed into comprehendable stories from the other side of the fire, in the deepest of nights.
They risked their sanity and consciousness in the service of dreaming better futures. They risked madness, or being unmoored in the wild realms of the interspaces, or being devoured by the unexpected demons of the communal imagination.
And I think that now, in our age, in the mid-ocean of our days, with certainties collapsing around us, and with no beliefs by which to steer our way through the dark descending nights ahead—I think that now we need those fictional old bards and fearless storytellers, those seers. We need their magic, their courage, their love, and their fire more than ever before. It is precisely in a fractured, broken age that we need mystery and a reawoken sense of wonder. We need them to be whole again.
Oh my golly: the Embers that have been Stirred. There’s a Rekindling at play.
And whilst this comes at a time in which I shall soon transition to a new beacon-Word, I remind myself—and you—that the Words of our past chapters are never ‘abandoned’. This is not some linear-sequential journey. We instead… assimilate them all into our ‘character’ (even if takes a full year for them to download from the noösphere). We do this year on year—as part of an annual Ritual of Becoming—so as to cultivate fluidity (and integrated complexity) of character. The idea being that we might periodically, wilfully, indulge in our existential angst; pre-emptively sojourning to the Abyss and back again, so that we might reap the dark fruits of wisdom.5
So, here’s where I am at: I will be taking a little more time with the Ritual this year. I usually have a sense of my next Word about 2-3 months prior to my birthday. But this time it remains a blur of distinctly differentiated beacon-concepts.
For example, I have been flirting with ‘Teacher’ as a potential beacon-Word. This is because—in addition to deeply admiring good teachers who show up with empathy, patience, encouragement and grace—I need to somewhat mollify the ‘Curse of Knowledge’6 that has me plunge ever deeper into arrogance and esoterica. Rather than scoff and sneer at the simplistic sloganism that saturates our noösphere—I might instead ‘Meet People Where They Are At’.7
Good teachers do this well. As part of my Year of the Bard I started learning to play the tabla. My teacher—one Dr Sam Evans—is perhaps the most encouraging guide I have ever encountered in my life. No matter how clumsy, slow and inept I play—and no matter how intense my in-the-moment self-criticism flares—he is always warmly and genuinely encouraging. It’s been a huge inspiration for me, and I would like to think I could show up like that in the lives of others.
I think I do, in person, most of the time. But on the internet something different flares up in me. I’ve long come to realise that this is by design. The platforms provoke; they are engineered for outrage—yet still; the ire and affront I feel when I witness charismatic neo-liberal hacks preaching reductive and artificially simplistic monolithic views in support of the defunct status-quo (under the guise of change) has me… feel compelled to respond. But then—blessedly!—the empathetic overthinker in me intervenes, and a benevolent silence ensues.
It’s a terrible social media strategy, hoho. But I don’t mind. At least it doesn’t feed this internet of beefs.
I am learning to pick my battles. Mainly; by having no battles. Or rather: by not even seeing things through the lens of ‘battles’.8 All part of the fool-quest to co-create a world more curious and kind. Moving quietly and planting things.
ANYHOO, I am hesitant about ‘teacher’ as a Word because it feels (to me) too nested within the domain of ‘experts’—folks who have all the ready answers, neat formulas, ‘rules’ and so on. Apt, perhaps for known (and complicated) domains—not so much for the complex and emergent.9 Ergo, to capture the ‘spirit’ of the meaningness that the word ‘teacher’ evokes for a complex world, we would be thinking it more akin to ‘facilitator’ (and less-so ‘trainer’). But now that just feels like most of the work I already do, hoho lol so: hence the conundrum.
And so the contemplative quest continues! I have other Words I am contemplating; a little more musing and the One shall emerge. I shall herald my Word sometime in the new year.
I write this to you mostly to encourage you to take your time in choosing your Word for the year ahead (if, indeed, this is the time you tend to do so).
I have shared this concept in keynotes and workshops for many years now, and have witnessed folks invest all of four or five seconds into the contemplation of their Word. A CEO once—after hearing of the concept—immediately proclaimed “I know my Word for the year ahead: Accelerate! We need to move faster, if we are going to achieve our goals.” I looked to see a sea of tired faces; completely unsurprised and uninspired by this declaration.
We must ’ware our tendency to leap to quick decisions, premature convergence, and the comfort that comes from the known, predictable and familiar. Let us not have our past triumph over our futures. Verily; immerse yourself in the generative ambiguity of unknowingness. Attune your acuity.
If you are fond of Words, I heartily encourage you to join The Society of the Double Dagger and subscribe to the newsletter of fiction writer Robin Sloan. His latest newsletter has rekindled exactly the kind of subtle enchantment I yearn for when contemplating potential Words. Also: relish in reading, and grow your vocabulary.
And if you would like to intentionally cultivate your own development and unfurling—and ensure that 2021 brings a different flavour of experience in your life—The ‘Choose One Word’ Ritual of Becoming awaits you.
Or, more aptly, ‘who we am’ (knowing that we are but an intermittently-continuous nebulous and multitudinous dividual dynamical unfurling waveform self-illusion; an emergent species of experience with the capacity for self-referential observance). ↩
The arena of the internet is part of the fabric of our realities now. We can’t deny it, and at the same time: we can’t become subsumed by it. The Web is the Warp; a place of immense power and distortion. ↩
Of course, such challenge can’t be constant. We need respite in order to recover and reflect. Hence the haven in which we conduct the Ritual of Becoming—and also the extended moments we might scatter through the year ahead. Ideally anchored around solstices, equinoxes, and anything that takes your fancy. ↩
Though what is cringe to me might be the crème de la crème for others. ↩
The alternative is to succumb to denial and distraction—avoiding the inner work until it all explodes upon us in one big crippling crisis. I am not sure if this is entirely wise—or if such crises are unavoidable. I am also not sure if we would want to avoid any such disintegration or ontological collapse—for as unpleasant as they are, newfound maturity, perspicacity and depth are found on the other side (assuming we don’t simply recoil and regress). Still; the Ritual of Becoming might serve as a kind of training for these transformations. ↩
A cognitive bias whereupon we unknowingly assume that others have the background to understand what we are talking about. I tend to do this, in high faith that others do. And yet often: others don’t. And yet if there’s one thing that tends to accrue alongside the knowledge we accrete: it’s doubt. The more we know, the more we know we don’t know—ergo the wiser amongst us learn to cultivate an ‘epistemological humility’. Curiosity eclipses any conviction we might harbour; which is perhaps why the wisest folks are more inclined to listen than to preach. This is not an effective strategy in an attention economy overrun by crusading paladins and narcissistic warlocks; yet here we are. The only solace I have found is to doubt my doubts; and to carry on with some kind of irony and sincerity—trusting you know that I know you know (even if you don’t). ↩
This then brings a kind of developmental hierarchy into the equation. Here we either embrace the epistemological humility I mention above, and adopt the stance of a learner. Or we accept that we are somehow more developed than the people we are speaking to (at least, in the particular domain or situation we find ourselves in), and proceed thusly. As one who makes a living as a wizard, I have had to find some equanimity in this—as preposterous and paradoxical as it may be—whilst also humbly succumbing to the curse of knowledge. It’s okay—there are far worse things to be cursed with. ↩
It’s more like a grand pantomime. ↩
Having said that, the best teachers do both—providing enough guidance, scaffolding and ‘lily pads of certainty’ for where students are at in their journey—even knowing that later they may help their students to dismantle the very structures that enabled their development (if only to help them remake them anew). This is true magic. ↩