A very old idea and a very new and practical application

(1) Mesopotamia: Emperor and Gods

The idea that the old year dies and is renewed with the new is very ancient. I thought I might write about that a bit today, as a prodroma to the offer my colleagues and I are making. If you’ve heard it before, please forgive me. It’s a story from ancient Mesopotamia.

As far as the Mesopotamians were concerned, the world was composed, in some sense, in two stages. In the first, the goddess Tiamat, a dragon-like denizen of the salt waters, and the Apsu, her husband and god of the fresh waters, “mingled together” (a sexual metaphor) and gave rise to the world of the elder gods, their children, who can be usefully regarded as the animating principles of the world. Alive, competitive and hearty, these gods pursue their ambitions, start their families—striving forwardly actively in the world. But they became incautious, noisy and careless, disturbing Tiamat, their mother. Their foolishness culminates in their determination to slay Apsu, and their decision to live on his corpse.

Now Apsu, as a patriarchal figure, can be read as a symbol or representation of the traditions of society itself (or even of the idea of society): the embodiment of order itself. The text therefore constitutes a warning: do not carelessly undermine, criticize and kill your traditions. In any case, the death of Apsu enrages his wife, Tiamat, who decides to destroy her ungrateful and foolhardy children. The wife of Apsu (who is order) must be and is the opposite principle, chaos—the potential and possibility that gives rise to all things, but also serves to ultimately destroy them—and one of the most fundamental primordial forces. Tiamat generates around her a monstrous army, led by Kingu, the ultimate figure of destruction and evil, and goes to war. The terrified elder gods send out one champion after another, but each returns defeated. None of their powers, however fundamental, can withstand chaos, unrestrained.

They hastily convene, inviting their children, one of whom—Marduk—is of particular note. He has eyes all around his head, and can speak magic words. They entreat upon Marduk to engage in willing combat with Tiamat, chaos, and to protect them all from her wrath. He agrees, on the condition that all his grandfathers and fathers elect him to head the pantheon of the gods (effectively making him King of the Gods). This is perhaps considered an indication of the emergence of monotheistic thoughts among the ancient Mesopotamians. Marduk faces Tiamat (chaos)—voluntarily—cuts her into pieces, and makes the world of men from her remains. He then makes men (sadly enough, from the blood of Kingu) into that created world to serve the gods.

The Mesopotamian emperor was regarded as possessed of sovereign authority insofar as he manifested the spirit of Marduk: insofar as he was willing to pay attention (referring to the god’s multiple eyes) and to speak the magic words of truth. Every New Year’s day, he was taken outside the walls of his home city, stripped of his kingly attire, and forced by the priests to recount all the ways that he had not been a good Marduk in the previous year. Then the organization of the gods, the election of Marduk, and the defeat of Tiamat would be re-enacted, using statues to represents the deities. The emperor would emerge, re-juvenated, as the conqueror of chaos and the agent of proper order and attention. Thus, the New Year was borne, and the old allowed to die.

(2) Aim straight and high and consciously

We act out the same thing in the modern world at the dawn of the New Year when we decide to consider our past errors and shortcomings, and resolve to do better in the future. But what does “to do better” mean? It’s not so easy to define what is good, much less aim at it. But a start might be made by considering, at least, the utility of ceasing to perceive, think and act in whatever manner is producing a crisis in conscience, minor or major. It is possible that guilt and shame, whatever their excesses and pathologies, can at least serve as pointers with regards to what is not good, so that what is good might be considered in opposition to that.

It is easier to notice when you have done something wrong than it is to consciously formulate a vision of what is right. How should you set things right?  How should you conduct yourself properly in the world? What should be the goal, or the goals, or your life?

These questions are so general and comprehensive and, in some sense, vague, that they are difficult to answer. So people don’t answer them, and they drift, aimless, purposeless and possessed by the uncertainty and anxiety that such aimless purposeless necessarily produces.

In consequence, my colleagues designed an online writing exercise we called the Future Authoring program (part of the SelfAuthoring Suite) to help people craft and implement a more conscious approach to their lives. This program, which has now been completed by tens of thousands of people, was designed to aid its users begin to define a vision for the future, and to outline a strategy for its realization. It suggests an attitude for contemplation: Consider treating yourself, at least for the purposes of its completion, as if you were someone intrinsically valuable—as if you are someone whose actions are important, and as if you had the responsibility for caring for yourself, in consequence. Imagine, then, that you could have what you needed and wanted, if you were willing to define what that was, and if you really needed and wanted it (which meant that you were willing to make the sacrifices (say, of immediate gratification, avoidance of responsibility and procrastination necessary to bring all that about).

If you could have what you want and need:

  • How would you reform your relationships with your parents and siblings and your extended family?
  • How would you establish, continue or repair your intimate relationship—your marriage, or its equivalent?
  • How might you further educate yourself?
  • What path might you choose or develop for your career or, failing that, your job?
  • How would you take care of yourself mentally and physically?
  • How would you use your time outside of your necessary work productively and meaningfully?
  • How would you manage the temptations of drugs, alcohol, sex, online activities, resentment, ingratitude, nihilism and hopelessness?

That’s a start. Could you answer these questions? Could you write for fifteen minutes about what might justify your life, three to five years down the road, if only you could attain it? Could you do the same, in the opposite direction, contemplating what personal hell you might well find yourself in if you fail to set your sails properly and degenerate, instead?

 Could you make a plan to implement your new vision? Could you identify some concrete goals, and establish for them a reasonable timeframe? Could you determine how to keep yourself on track?

 Could you risk doing all of this badly, imperfectly, partially—so that at least you would have a bad plan, as the better alternative to none at all?

We designed the Future Authoring program to help people manage all that. We studied the effects of its completion among college and university students in three different institutions (a university and a college in Canada and a business school in The Netherlands). Those who completed the program (even spending only an hour to do so) were much less likely to drop out of school, and much more likely to perform well, academically. That does not mean that the program was designed for students, or that its effects are limited to young people.

We have reduced its price for all of January 2019 (starting today, December 31, 2018) by 50% to encourage its use.

Buy it for yourself at https://www.selfauthoring.com/future-authoring

Buy it for a friend at https://www.selfauthoring.com/buy-it-for-a-friend (scroll down to “Give Individual Exercises”)


Thank you all very much for your support and interest in all my projects over the last year.