Turn And Face The Strange: Heraclitus, Bowie, and Me

Image courtesy  slate  magazine

Image courtesy slate magazine

Time may change me
But I can’t trace time
I said that time may change me
But I can’t trace time.
— David Bowie, Changes
All things come into being through opposition, and all are in flux like a river.
— Heraclitus

I first met with David Bowie’s music when I was about seven or eight years old. I think the first song I ever heard was Ashes to Ashes, or possibly Major Tom; actually, I’m pretty sure it was the former, because it would have been on Countdown in 1980, and I was eight then. This is alarming, because it makes me aware I am really, horribly old; but goodness, his voice.

It was strange, and it was wonderful.

It was a little like my first meeting with that extremely difficult gentleman of Ephesus, the ‘dark’ philosopher himself, Heraclitus. Now, short of travelling back in time to c.500BCE, this was obviously a meeting of the minds, rather than a chat over a coffee and a scone or two. (I’m fairly certain sitting down for a quick macchiato wouldn’t have been high on Heraclitus’ to-do list at any stage in the proceedings anyway, unless he was attempting to be clever or prove a point, but that’s just my opinion.)

I studied the teachings of Heraclitus, along with Hesiod, Pythagoras, Plato, Aristotle, my beloved Pliny the Elder, and almost as beloved international man of history Herodotus, as a sixteen and seventeen year old, then later at university. I know it may sound hackneyed, but much like that first contact with Major Tom, as soon as I heard about Heraclitus’ assertion of Panta Rhei (Life is Flux) – I had that same strange and wonderful, ‘yes. This makes sense. OK. Right, let’s go’ moment of clarity, and I knew this was a concept I could run happily within.

Life is Flux; everything, or all things, change. In other words, as it is attributed to him – the only constant is change.

David Bowie - Changes
Live at Olympia, Paris 1 July, 2002

Heraclitus argued that, as quoted above, “…all things come into being through opposition, and all are in flux like a river.” Our lives are in a constant state of conflict; it is in point of fact, the essential driving force of life. So, instead of trying to fight against the unturnable tide, we should rather attempt to accept, embrace, and live within this flux. To fight against it, to stay static, he said, was a little death. A ‘clinging’ to the status quo was unnatural, and it is this which causes suffering, because it means we are refusing to participate in real life, to understand Panta Rhei.

He saw this force as a fire, a constant kindling. Resisting it made it go out, hence the little death, each time. He wrote:

“This world order, the same for all, no god made or any man, but it always was and is and will be an ever-living fire, kindling by measure and going out by measure.”

He boiled this whole roiling, whirling biscuit down to one big fat ideation; logos – literally, the word. It all derives from conflict theory. He envisaged our entire lives as a balanced battle, and if we embraced the rationality, the understanding of this balance, then “…it is a harmony of opposed tensions, as in the bow and the lyre.”

It may seem odd to have Heraclitus and David Bowie in an article together, but bear with me. It will make sense. Possibly. It depends, I suppose, on whether or not you are someone who lives within change, or is overwhelmed by it – and that’s most of humanity, as an aside. Research by McKinsey shows us that, despite making massive strides in terms of workplace methodologies, a whacking great 70 percent of change management initiatives still fail. This is our working lives; transpose this to rest of life situations, and one can see why we are in the pickle we are in, planetarily speaking.

Why? Because as a species, change scares us stupid. We hate it. We question it. It makes us anxious, unsettled, and wary. We see it as a harbinger of doom, rather than a natural force. Change = bad. It’s that simple, for a hellishly large number of people. It is a surface view, but that’s the problem; nobody wants to look deeper, because they are frightened at a surface level. Why look any more closely at the remaining seven eighths of the iceberg? The first little sliver is scary enough, thanks.

Me? I love change. I absolutely love it. I thrive on it. This makes me a rarity, in life generally and in terms of work patterns, and it’s also why I mentioned David Bowie. He understood it was a fire that feeds our life, to quote Pablo Neruda, another of my heroes. He saw that to succeed, to flow, rather than ebb, one has to be comfortable with chaos; to see it as a positive, rather than a negative. To understand it is part of the natural world order, rather than a creature of malignant intent, crouched, ready to pounce and cause harm.

If we expect the unexpected, and embrace it with open arms, then it becomes a part of self, rather than an outside force driving us.

Imagine you are in a queue for a slide in a water fun park. You finally reach the top. It’s been a long wait – but now, it’s your turn to go down the roaring, sloshy, torrent of water. You can see just a few twists and turns of the tunnel lying ahead, the curls and ripples of the waves. What you can’t see is where it will end, or what lies between here, and there.

It’s oblivion.

It is, potentially, flux. Chaos. A constant state of change. Non-stop, fast-moving, forward flowing water. There is no tide here you can turn.

Now. How are you going to handle it? Are you going to hesitate, then turn, and slink away, back, back, back down those long, hot stairs – or are you going to whoop, and fling yourself forward, ready to take on whatever the slide has to offer?

Bowie... understood [change] was a fire that feeds our life, to quote Pablo Neruda, another of my heroes.

You may take a little prodding to gingerly lower yourself in, and take a bit of gentle encouragement to get going. You may have a few moments of blind panic on the way down. And that’s okay. But let me ask you; by the time you splash into the pool at the bottom, if you managed to make the journey –

Wasn’t it exhilarating? And for most of the ride, wasn’t it all about that sheer, heady pleasure of just being within the water? And, if you were confident enough…

…shaping and smoothing your journey, so you maximised the speed, and the thrill, and the rush.

That is, to me, what understanding and accepting change is about at its heart. Life is flux. A constant, burning fire of contrasts, conflict and change. It is untraceable, it is weird. It is a kindling, crackling fire. We are constantly faced with challenges which can make us want to cling to the known, the safe, the comfortable.

The easy.

But – if we turn to face the strange, and say “I accept, and I live within you” – what possibilities open up to us? It’s scary as hell, true. But the opportunities it provides are boundless and unlimited in their variety.

Time may change me, but I can choose – I do choose – sorry, Ziggy – to also trace time. Why? Because as Heraclitus said; the world is a chaotic one.

And fortune favours the brave, the deep of heart and mind – and those who don’t try to tame the chaos, but rather accept it, and use it as a flint to keep the kindling of that fire burning, burning, burning.

Whoever cannot seek the unforeseen sees nothing for the known way is an impasse.
— Heraclitus