The Demonized Virtue of Being Messy
I should’ve know something was wrong a couple of days ago when I started to clean my office. Being an addict means monitoring my behavior for outward and visible signs that something isn’t right in the inward and invisible part of me – that may sound like a sacrament, but trust me, it isn’t. Cleaning my office didn’t result in a cataclysmic spat of inebriation, at least, not this time, or, at least, not yet. But I stopped writing. I stopped thinking of things to write about, and the idea of doing photography fatigued my body as only an idea can.
There is a direct correlation from the mess of my office to the productivity of my muse. The messier the better. The more disarrayed the more my mind is reassembling the thoughts of the writers sheltered on my floor. The wider and higher the stack of books and torn off scraps of papers and scattered Post-It-Notes reminding me of some random thought, the happier and more excited I am to be in my office. On a good day, my office mirrors the mind of an unslept, over-caffeinated, crazy person – “If anyone comes to the gates of poetry and expects to become and adequate poet…without the Muses’ madness, he will fail,” wrote Plato.
The best times of my life have been spent in the squalor of rubbish, slews of miscellanea, cracked spines, broken pencils, the sort of disarray explained by chaos theory and quantum mechanics. I’m excited to get up in the morning when I know I’m coming into an office where I will have to step over, go around, and outflank a growing mass of mess. Cats and hoarders live in more orderly conditions than my office. (I should add here, though, that leftover food and drink do not live in my office – that’s what the kitchen sink is for.)
It is often said, “Cleanliness is next to godliness,” and “A clean room equals a clean mind.” These are lies. All of them lies; lies perpetuated by conspiracy theory media and others who are terrified of self-reflective smarts and creativity. And this isn’t so much a matter of opinion as it is a law of physics. God may have ordered creation perfectly, but God also order creation to go from orderliness to messiness. This is called the second law of thermodynamics – its physics, see. Eric Abrahamson and David H. Freedman, the authors of “A Perfect Mess: The Hidden Benefits of Disorder,” wrote, “On a messy desk, the more important, urgent work tends to stay close by and near the top of clutter, while the safely ignorable stuff tends to get buried to the bottom or near back, which makes perfect sense.”
In this way, the cluttered, messy desk resembles the well-ordered soul. If the well-ordered soul were nice and neat, composed of parts of equal value, no part competing against any other part, we’d have rocks for brains. No, this soul business isn’t what we’d expect or want. The well-ordered soul is in turmoil, fighting with itself. “Let us then like the soul to the natural union of a team of winged horses and their charioteer,” Plato’s Socrates says in the Phaedrus. “To begin with, our driver is in charge of a pair of horses; second, one of his horses is beautiful and good and from stock of the same sort, while the other is the opposite…This means that chariot-driving in our case is inevitably a painfully difficult business.” In other words, the well-ordered soul looks like a mess.
“The heaviness of the bad horse drags its charioteer toward the earth and weighs him down if he has failed to train it well, and this causes the most extreme toil and struggle that a soul will face,” says Plato’s Socrates. And here we are. Grabbing the reigns of our soul, trying to reorient ourselves towards beauty, wisdom, goodness – the Divine. We cajole the two horses. To bring unity to chaos. And that effort is a sweaty, nasty mess. When the charioteer has steered his horses successfully towards beauty, “he is frightened, falls over backwards awestruck, and at the same time has to pull the reins back so fiercely that both horses are set on their haunches, one falling back voluntarily with no resistance, but the other…burst into a torrent of insults as soon as it has caught its breath, accusing its charioteer and yokemate of all sorts of cowardice and unmanliness.”
What is all this to say? The pursed lips, the holier than thou, the judgmental perfectionist lobbing condemnations from on high has no idea what it means to even have a soul. Our messy, messy conflicted lives, the struggle between apathy and industry, the unresolved animosity, self-loathing, grotesque inner turmoil we keep safely out of sight, the stodge, cruel mind we carry around, this isn’t something to be embarrassed by. It is a celebration of progress, slow interment progress, a back and forth between here and where we want to be. And it isn’t a cynical journey. It really is one step backwards but two steps forward, a screwed-up messy walk that brings out our best.
Next time you look around the office of your mind and you see only disarray and clutter, give thanks that you haven’t got it all figured out. The well-ordered soul and the beautiful mind censures and cajoles itself far harsher than God ever will. And we will be surprised, shocked even, to learn that grace is so abundantly given to our messy lives that God isn’t as concerned about cleaning up as God wants to just sit with us on the unmade bed of our lives.
I said earlier that peering inside of myself for lurking trouble wasn’t a sacrament. I was wrong.