A Time for Chaos
Updated: Sep 1, 2019
Two years ago today, I was standing on the deck of HMS Dragon a few miles off the coast of Gibraltar.
Exhilarated, determined and only a little seasick, I was interviewing a young Weapons Engineer Officer about life as a sailor and how the Royal Navy had changed him. I was on board for two weeks as part of a crew filming the latest instalment of ‘Made In The Royal Navy’: a recruitment advertising campaign which aims to convince young men and women to join the service. Asking someone to join the Navy isn’t like selling them a car. These young people have to make a life-changing decision knowing nothing about what it actually entails. And very often (thankfully) these people just aren’t the ‘chaotic’ type. They’re engineers – or at least they will be. They’re smart, logical thinkers and they’re used to order. They naturally gravitate to the known knowns, then along we come asking them to take a giant leap into the unknown. Royal Navy recruiters need all the help they can get, and that help comes in two forms. The first is the message. These ads seldom focus just on the particulars of the job – the kit, the salary, the benefits etc. To today’s youngsters these are important but peripheral details surrounding the core benefit a job like this can offer: helping you become the person you didn’t know you could be.
There’s nothing untrue about this. Speak to anyone who’s built a career in the Royal Navy and they’ll communicate the sentiment far more convincingly than any advert can. The second is timing. All the research and all the data point to two times of the year when people open their minds to huge, life-altering decisions: January and September. Now you may not have joined the Royal Navy, but I’m willing to bet you can relate to a certain feeling at those times of the year.
That dark yet hopeful, jaded yet expectant, scary yet exhilarating feeling which descends when we emerge from festivities, enter into a period of reflection and set our sights on transformation. Of the two, I’ve always found September far more transformative. Why? Because nobody bloody warns you that it’s coming. The January feeling is simple and expected. We emerge blinking from the Christmas fog, we open our eyes to a brand-new year and we’re ready for wholesale change. This is known to everyone from the HR department to the gym. “New year, new you” is a cliché for a reason.
Against the universal backdrop of new year’s resolutions, you can prepare for those sudden radical urges to reinvent yourself and moderate your actions accordingly. But the September feeling is quite different. It creeps up on you. Its causes are more elusive, which makes it much harder to anticipate. One moment we’re relishing the waning days of summer, then suddenly we feel like something’s missing.
There’s no ‘New Year’s Day’-type changeover or tradition of writing resolutions. We just find ourselves – quite suddenly – craving change. Unexpected as this September mindset may be, its roots run deep within our culture.
In our own lives, we in the northern hemisphere are used to September being the end of summer, when everything gets colder and darker. We’re also used to school years starting in September, meaning that during our formative years it really is the time for unfamiliar new beginnings. In the UK, it’s even the month when most of our babies are born. But of course it goes much further back than our own lifetimes.
September was our period of harvest long before we had any concept of schools, summer holidays or even “September” itself.
This tradition has shaped the rhythm of our civilisation and influenced how we perceive time itself in ways we can never fully understand – small wonder that we feel its significance when it comes around. Whatever the causes, I’ve found that the key is to embrace it. There’s a time for order and there’s a time for chaos. For me, that time has always been September. I don’t much like chaos. My instinct is to create order. I analyse, I plan, and I build. And yet, every September I find myself deeply discontented with the order I’ve built and lurching for some sort of chaos. In 2016 it was auditioning for drama schools, in 2017 it was chasing down a long-sought-after promotion, in 2018 it was starting a new job, and this year it’s finally moving into my first owned flat. I don’t plan the timing of these things, but they have a funny knack of happening around this time of year. Accepting that September brings chaos can be daunting. Order is just so much easier.
But chaos isn’t a dirty word. In Greek mythology Chaos was the first being out of which all primeval deities (and the rest of the world with them) emerged. According to the Ancient Greeks, we would have literally nothing without Chaos. Nor is it a dirty concept. While order brings stability, chaos brings growth. A rich, meaningful life needs both.
There’s a time to dig in, settle down and appreciate the life you have, but there’s also a time to be restless, shake things up and see where the pieces land.
If - for whatever unfathomable reason - that time comes in September, I’ve learned to put my hands up and say that’s just fine by me. I’m writing this on the last day of August and I can already feel the beginnings of chaos shaking up my life in ways I can’t quite predict. If you can feel them too, my advice is to embrace them. If not, there’s always the Royal Navy.