Book – Wyrd Allies: Weird Is A Noun

“Weird is a noun”, he says. I’m surprised to find that it is what the dictionary shows, too: it’s from the Old English word ‘wyrd’, “the principle, power or agency by which events are predetermined; fate, destiny”, and also “a happening, event, occurrence; predetermined events collectively”. The dictionary also says that the use of ‘weird’ as an adjective, to mean ‘strange’ is quite recent – it only started a couple of hundred years ago, picked up by Victorian scholars from Shakespeare’s description of the “three Weird Sisters” in Macbeth. But ‘weird’ the noun, ‘weird’ the event, is an idea which goes back many centuries, even thousands of years. Those three weird sisters weren’t only strange: they were the wyrd, “the power by which events are predetermined” – though it’s obvious they’re also weird in that sense of strange.

Fascinating. But so what? How is that supposed to help me sort out my hassles with everyone else? Judging by the chaos in my life, most events certainly aren’t ‘predetermined’ by me… are they? And if my problems with Jean and Peter, with Mary or Charlie or Andrew – let alone never managing to meet up with Nicky – really are predetermined, really are prescribed by fate or destiny, where does choice come into it? If there is a choice, where does fate – or wyrd – come into it? And what’s that about “there’s always a choice, there’s always a twist”?

Stop for a moment, and think about some of your own relationships with others. Some are probably all too predictable – predetermined indeed! – with the same comments and same responses coming up in the same context, time after time after time. By contrast, other relationships might seem chaotic, completely unpredictable, uncertain, even unsafe. And some may seem to be stuck in repeating loops or patterns of frustration, with blame and bickering endlessly echoing back and forth. In each case, where are the choices? For that matter, who seems to have the choices there? You? Or only others? Or what? It would probably be worthwhile to write some notes to yourself on this, to come back to later in the book.

But from that description, whatever wyrd is, it obviously affects everyone. It’s also about feelings – that feeling of ‘weirdness’ that comes up so often in so many of these situations. If there are choices involved – those “choices hidden in the weavings of the wyrd” – then it’s also about awareness: awareness of what really is ‘predetermined’ and what isn’t. And there’s evidently a story behind it: so that’s probably the best place to start.

Wyrd is a story

Imagine the weird scene as Shakespeare describes it in Macbeth: on a dark, bare heathland stands a single huge tree, the wind twisting and turning in its leaves and branches. Beneath the tree, there stand three ‘secret, black and midnight hags’ – or as Holinshed, Shakespeare’s source for the story, put it, ‘weirdly sisters in straunge and wild apparell, resembling creatures of elder world’ – stirring a cauldron, casting men’s lives into the roiling waters above the fire. As Banquo and Macbeth enter the scene, the women each greet Macbeth in turn: “All haile, Makbeth, thane of Glammis!” “Haile, Makbeth, thane of Cawder!” “All haile, Makbeth, that heereafter shall be king of Scotland!” And as Shakespeare’s play shows, all these greetings come true: but there is also a certain amount of twist in that story…

Just a story… or a bit more than a story? Holinshed’s Chronicles, first published in Shakespeare’s time, purports to be a genuine history of Scotland: Macbeth, Banquo and the others were real people, and Shakespeare’s play is based – with a fair amount of poetic licence – on what seem, from historical evidence, to be real facts. That much is known. But who were these ‘weird sisters’? And how come they’re supposed to be able to control, or direct, people’s lives in this strange, twisted way?

To answer that, we need to go a little deeper into the myth behind the story. It’s actually a variant of the common myth of the three sisters of fate – called the Moirai by the Greeks, the Parcae by the Romans, or the Nornir in Old Norse. The Greeks named the three sisters Clotho (from whom we get the word ‘cloth’), Lachesis and Atropos (whose name literally means ‘one who will not be turned’). Individually, they are blind – hence ‘blind fate’ – though they share one eye, passing it endlessly between them; yet it’s doubtful if they really need it, because they seem to see the weavings of the world with weirder ‘eyes’. And they’re the weavers of the fabric of human lives: one spins, one weaves, one cuts. In the Greek story, though, there’s no choice: although the cross-warp of ‘blind chance’ holds the fabric together, each thread of life within it is predestined, ‘meted out’ – and the fates will not be turned. Life is: and the only choices are held in the mysterious hands of fate.

Would you say that’s true for you – that for much of the time you seem to have no choice, that “the only choices are held in the mysterious hands of fate”? How do you feel about that? And what happens if you try to “wrest control of your life from the fates”? Does it work – in other words do you gain absolute certainty, absolute predictability in your life? If not, what does happen then?

The Greek story has a certain amount of truth, but it’s not really enough. We do always have some choice in what happens to us – even if the choices we make usually turn out to be the wrong ones! The Nordic version of the same story gives it a slightly different twist – which is where ‘wyrd’ comes in.

‘Wyrd’ – or rather ‘Urðr’, in the original – is actually the name of the first of the three sisters; the others are Verðandi and Skuld, and their names roughly translate as Past, Present and Future. So these three ‘maidens from Giantland’ – as the Nordic myth describes them – are not only the weavers of the fabric of life, they’re also the sisters of time. The crucial difference in the Nordic story is that, unlike the Moirai, the ‘sisters of wyrd’ weave a fabric of life, not lives. Each life is not a single, isolated thread on a flat cloth, but a pathway of choices in something more like a Celtic knotwork – infinitely interwoven within itself, yet with a pattern and a structure all its own. Where the Greek story of the Fates has rigid rules and harsh retributions, the story of the Weird Sisters is more like modern chaos theory and fractal topology: everywhere there is ‘self-similarity’, with patterns of “sudden leaps and jagged edges” which never quite repeat, but appear on many different levels and areas at once. Douglas Hofstadter described chaos theory succinctly: “it turns out that behind apparent order lies an eerie kind of chaos; but behind that chaos lies an even eerier kind of order” – and he could just as well have been describing the concept of wyrd. The wyrd – the world of those Weird Sisters – may look chaotic at first: but behind the surface chaos it does indeed have its own “even eerier kind of order”…

“Behind apparent order lies an eerie kind of chaos; but behind that chaos lies an even eerier kind of order”. At the time things happen – all those strange twists and turns in our lives – we’re probably only aware of the chaos! But looking back, can you perhaps see in the pattern of your life “an even eerier kind of order” – or at least a thread or two of continuity, seeming to push you along a particular path? What’s happened in your life – particularly those “sudden leaps and jagged edges” where, in a brief space of time, your life has changed its whole direction? That’s wyrd – that’s what wyrd is

Who else was with you at those times? Who else was involved in these sudden twists of fate? What part did you think then that they played in this? Looking back, with the benefit of hindsight, what part do you now think they played?

And what part did fate, coincidence, providence – call it what you will – play in those changes? Because that’s wyrd too – that’s what wyrd is

Each thread within the fabric of wyrd is not a single person’s life, as with the Fates, but more a stereotype or archetype: what a life would be like if one choice was followed from its beginning all the way through to its logical conclusion. Every thread, every choice, has its dénouément, its often ignominious ending: even the ‘good’ and ‘moral’ choices, as the Greeks used to warn, often fade away into hubris, the pride that comes before a fall. So unlike the story of the Fates, our life-path within the wyrd is not a single, fixed, predetermined thread, but instead consists of an endless series of choices, moving our life-path from thread to thread – and trying not to be misled into poor choices or trapped in ‘self-similar’ loops by the twisted confusions of the wyrd. No-one can ever truly control what happens, to themselves or to anyone; but with awareness we can each direct our path through the wyrd – that distinction is subtle, but vitally important! At every moment, there’s a choice: to stay on the current thread, the logical extension of the current choice; or to move off onto any one of a myriad of other threads, other paths, that intersect with this one, here, now. So what choice should I make? What do I do now? Which way do I turn? There’s always a choice, there’s always a twist: yet it’s the interweavings of those twists of ‘weirdness’ that make the choices possible – if we can allow ourselves to see them.

And there’s a further twist, because each thread not only passes through everyone – or everyone through each thread – but also through everywhere, and everywhen: every choice has its echoes in every place, and every time. In the Greek story this aspect of the weaving is maintained not by the Fates, but by Pan, whose name literally means ‘everywhere’. Yet there is no such separation in the Nordic story: the wyrd is all of these. The Sisters of Weird are the spinners and weavers of the wyrd’s fabric; as the ‘sisters of time’, they control – or choose – the everchanging nature of Now; and they also keep watch over the world itself – the tree they stand beside is Yggdrasil, the World-Tree, which they tend constantly with water from the world’s well. Even the name of the first – and originally the only – sister, Urðr, echoes this interweaving of everywhere: in Scottish the ‘ð’ or ‘eth’ in her name is hardened to a ‘d’-sound, giving us the word ‘weird’; but in Old German it was originally softened to a ‘th’-sound, becoming the name of an important deity, Erthe or Eartha – the goddess of the earth, the goddess of everywhere. The wyrd is everything, everyone, everywhere, everywhen.

The other crucial difference between these two stories is in the way they view relationship. As far as Fate is concerned, relationship might as well not exist: each life is a distinct, separate, isolated thread, and such connection as it might happen to have with any other is fixed by the weavings of ‘blind chance’ – there’s certainly no choice about it. But the wyrd is a fabric of life: an infinity of lives, each choosing their own path within a roiling, seething, effervescent interweaving of choices and chances. So every life, every choice, affects everyone and everything within the wyrd, everywhere and everywhen: everyone is on, or in, the same interweaving. Two people, following the same path – the same choice – compare notes on their experiences: for each of them this new information leads to further choices – and, of course, to further twists. So every moment is the interweaving of every choice, everywhere, everywhen; the wyrd, quite simply, is relationship, with everyone.

Wyrd is everyone

The threads of wyrd are archetypes, human characteristics: every one of them passes through everyone, everywhere, creating a web of connections which Carl Jung described as ‘the collective unconscious’. More accurately, it’s a kind of collective subconscious: most of the time we’re aware only of the handful of threads that form what we each tend to think of as ‘I’ – or at least the ‘I’ that we present to others – yet within each one of us is every thread, every characteristic, every human possibility. And we share all of these with everyone else: the wyrd is everyone.

I’m walking down the street, in the centre of the city, not particularly thinking of anything. Quite without warning, quite unbidden, a sense of knowing arises: I know that I am everyone – share humanity with everyone – and everyone is me. There is no separation between us, no distinction between us, no boundary between us – and yet I’m still ‘I’. And the moment fades, and there’s the street around me, and there are all the other people in the street, entirely separate, living their – our – own separate yet interweaving lives. A brief moment of weirdness, illustrating once more for me the nature of the wyrd.

When do you find yourself knowing that sense of connection with everyone? What feelings arise when it happens? If you think that you’ve never known this – that you feel only your isolation, your separateness from others – how do you think it would feel if you became aware of this sense of connection?

Each ‘I’, in this sense, is no more than that set of threads which we choose to present as ‘I’: our character, so to speak, or, in Jung’s terms, our ‘persona’ – literally, a mask, ‘that through which I sound’. Every thread passes through us, but usually we’re only aware of a few – and are either unaware of the rest, or like to pretend that they don’t pass through us!

I’m not keen on the idea that every thread, every human characteristic passes through me: “I’m not bitchy and vindictive – am I?” But then if every thread does pass through me, that includes all the ‘good’ characteristics that I think only other people have: “I’ll never be as confident as she is – will I?”

The wyrd weaves in both directions: ultimately, we each choose our own ‘I’. If every thread, every human characteristic passes through you, which ones would you prefer to say aren’t part of you? Bitchiness? Vindictiveness? Cruelty? Callousness? What else?

And which threads do you think aren’t ‘you’ which you’d like to be so? Beauty? Charm? Confidence? Certainty? Strength? What else?

What if all of these were part of your ‘I’ – right now? In what ways would you feel different? And if you’re not aware of these characteristics in you now, what would happen to your sense of self, of ‘I’, if you did accept them as part of ‘I’?

In the short term, our ‘character’ – made up of the threads that are visible on the surface – is fairly stable. Over time, though, it does change – sometimes a lot – because our choices change: and yet it’s always the same ‘I’. So ‘I’ is not that which changes: ‘I’ is that which chooses.

Yet as we choose, so does everyone else; and every choice changes the choices for everyone else. Every choice we make echoes up and down the threads, affecting everyone: although in itself each thread may be fixed, and the path it defines predetermined, the wyrd itself – the interweaving of choice and chance – is anything but fixed. “No-one is an island, intire unto itself”: whether we ‘choose’ so or not, we’re always in relationship – with everyone.

Within the context of the wyrd, each ‘I’ is like a nexus or clustering of the threads – the same threads. Every thread passes through everyone: which we means that we always have access to every possible human characteristic, human feeling. And it also means that we can always reach inside ourselves to understand others – which sounds weird, perhaps, but it works!

We can see why it works by using a slightly different analogy for ‘I’. From a basic perspective, there’s a clear boundary between ‘I’, and ‘not-I’ – in other words everyone else, everything else. It’s like a wall around our sense of self: a wall or ‘boundary’ which sometimes – often, perhaps – we feel we have to defend.

Are you aware of a kind of wall or boundary which you maintain around you, protecting your sense of ‘I’? How does it feel when someone or something comes too close? How do you respond when someone intentionally, or even accidentally, breaches that boundary?

But for an analogy, cut off a strip about an inch wide from the long side of a piece of standard letter-paper, and join the ends flat together to turn it into a loop, a circle. Imagine that this forms the boundary between ‘I’ and ‘not-I’, with a definite inside – ‘I’ – and an equally definite outside – ‘not-I’. Now take the loop apart, and give the strip of paper a half-twist before joining the ends together again, into what’s called a Möbius loop. It’s twisted, like the threads of wyrd, but it’s still a loop, a circle, forming a definite boundary. Or not so definite a boundary: there’s still an inside – an ‘I’ – and there’s still an outside – ‘not-I’ – but there is also no boundary, because somehow the inside of the strip becomes the outside becomes the inside. (Follow the side of the strip with your finger if this isn’t obvious.) There is a boundary, but the boundary blurs – and there’s no break, no specific point, at which it does so. Weird.

We can take this analogy a couple of steps further. Take a pair of scissors, and cut along the middle of the strip of paper. You’ll notice that if you start cutting on the outside of the circle, at some point you’ll find yourself cutting from what seems to be the inside, but just keep going till you come back to where you started. As you complete the cut, the circle falls apart – not into two circles, but into a single larger one with two twists. So once more cut along the middle of this longer strip of paper: and as the cut completes this time, it does fall into two circles – but interwoven with each other, and each with a single twist. We’re back where we started: except now we have two interlocking circles where before we had one. So the more we divide this strip – this thread of wyrd – the more we create a web of interlocking, interweaving threads, creating a more and more tightly defined boundary that is also, at the same time, no boundary.

So imagine, then, that this boundary between ‘I’ and ‘not-I’ is made up, not of a single strip of paper, but of an infinite number of threads of wyrd, all with the same twisted property, where somehow the inside becomes the outside becomes the inside, where ‘I’ interweaves with ‘not-I’. That’s wyrd: that’s what wyrd is.

We interweave with everyone through the wyrd: its twisted threads create choices that allow us to relate to others in many different ways. However strange or difficult a relationship may seem, there’s always a choice we can take which can make it work for everyone – if we so choose. But to find this we first need to understand the twisted nature of the wyrd: and perhaps the best way to start is to remember that ‘weird’ is also, and always, a feeling.

Wyrd is a feeling

Strange. Peculiar. Odd. Uncertain. Weird. They’re all words to describe a particular, almost indescribable feeling. There’s often a hint of fear, of panic almost, in that feeling, but there’s also exhilaration, excitement, even elation. A very strange feeling…

Something’s weird, you say. Where do you feel it? Go back through some memories of events or situations – or even people – that you’d describe as weird. Explore the feelings you associate with each – “it sent shivers up my spine”, perhaps.

Having done that, notice the circumstances where that same feeling comes up in your everyday life. What does that tell you about ‘weirdness’ itself?

That feeling is also one of the hallmarks of wyrd in action: a signal that we can know we have new choices, that we’re being presented, in the moment, with the possibility of looking at ourselves, or our relationship with the wider world, in a different and more empowering way.

Perhaps the greatest problem here, though, is fear. There’s always some fear that comes up whenever we meet the wyrd – mainly because, being wyrd, it weaves its way past that carefully-constructed boundary around our sense of ‘I’. In that moment of weirdness, we’re being shown something that we don’t usually see, and often don’t want to see – especially about ourselves. The feelings that come with that are not exactly pleasant… And yet if we don’t accept what’s being shown to us by the twists of wyrd – if we hide from it in embarrassed, angry fear – we won’t be able to see that we’re also being shown choices: new ways to understand and express our own power. Power – ‘the ability to act within the world, as an expression of our own choice’ – is inextricably interwoven with fear: “where there is fear, there is power; where there is power, there is fear”, as the old witchcraft saying puts it. But if we hide in fear from what the wyrd shows us about our own power – our own choices – we can hardly complain if we end up feeling powerless…

What are you afraid of? What do you fear? Why? In what weird ways do the weavings of the world remind you of that fear? When that fear returns – if only for a brief moment – what do you feel?

Our fears reduce only when we face them, and usually grow when we refuse to face them: that’s one of the standard lessons in all forms of what’s called personal growth. And a certain kind of wry humour can play an important part in this: by its nature, humour is weird, yet it’s also one of the ways in which we come to allow ourselves to face our own fears. The weirdness of humour is that it juxtaposes different ways of looking at a particular issue – particularly, ways which we wouldn’t usually allow ourselves to see. In the midst of the laughter, it’s often easy to miss that the twists of humour conceal choices: what it’s really showing us is that the way we see the world is the way we choose to see it – and that other ways of seeing it can allow us to reduce the fears we all have about it.

Another chaotic mess of confusion and blame: no choice… I can’t face it… it’s so bad this time I just don’t know whether to laugh or cry… Yet even here I do still have a choice – namely to laugh, or to cry. Which would be more useful? Which would be more empowering? An interesting question…

When you’re as overloaded emotionally as that, which do you choose? What happens with each of those choices – what do you feel in each case? And notice, no matter how powerless you feel, that you still have the power to make that choice…

That’s what personal growth is about. But when we’re working on our relationships with others, it’s not just personal growth we’re concerned with: it’s also interpersonal growth, the development of shared feeling and shared awareness. One of the aims of interpersonal growth is to become personally familiar with another feeling: “je ne regrette rien” – no regrets, no anguishing about what ‘could’ or ‘should’ or ‘might’ have happened, but simply an acceptance of what did happen, and an acknowledgement of what we and others learned from it. A quiet state of active acceptance, yet active involvement, that’s described as both non-attachment and non-detachment. Yet we won’t be able to reach that state without awareness: awareness of ourselves, awareness of others, and awareness of the twisted nature of the wyrd and its choices. With awareness, the wyrd provides us with awareness of itself – and of the empowering choices that lie within its twists.

Wyrd is an awareness

“Evolution is chaos with feedback”, wrote one of the early researchers on the mathematics of chaos. Life is chaos with feedback: but if we’re not aware of the feedback, all we’ll see is the chaos…

The usual approach to chaos is to try to take control, to reduce it to some kind of order, a predictable pattern. Then, we hope, it will all make sense – somehow. Many personal development programmes aim, or at least claim, to show how to “take control of your life!” – which is unfortunate, because Reality Department is, by its nature, inherently chaotic, and hence true control is impossible, a myth. Any semblance of order we try to place on reality – such as the simple concept of cause-and-effect, or a more sophisticated concept such as the Indian notion of ‘karma’ – is exactly that: a semblance, an illusion, not the thing itself.

One of the common misunderstandings about modern chaos theory is the assumption that it makes the unpredictable predictable at last. It doesn’t: all it does is make predictable the degree of unpredictability – within those bounds, chaos remains as unpredictable as ever. Even a simple coin-toss is completely unpredictable: no matter how many times it’s come up heads or tails before, there’s always an exactly even chance as to which way it will land – a mistake that has cost many gamblers dearly… And no matter how much we may talk about the ‘laws’ of science, or psychology, or economics, or whatever, in reality there is only one true law: the weirdness of Murphy’s Law – “if something can go wrong, it probably will”. Ultimately, all the other so-called ‘laws’ are only guidelines, patterns of high or even very high probability: but Murphy’s Law really is a law – the only law in town.

“If something can go wrong, it probably will”. What’s your experience of Murphy’s Law: the car refusing to start on the one morning you’re in a hurry, for example? Remind yourself of some other examples of your own. What do you feel when this happens?

The twist is that Murphy’s Law is so much of a law that it normally applies to itself – “if Murphy’s Law can go wrong, it probably will” – which gives us the illusion that the other ‘laws’ are real. The apparent predictability of scientific law and social custom occurs because the unpredictabilities tend to cancel themselves out – but it’s essential never to forget that the uncertainty is always there, and can never be ‘legislated’ away. We may think things ‘ought to’ or ‘should’ work in the way that we want them to: but sometimes this just doesn’t happen – at all. We may think people ‘ought to’ or ‘should’ always do exactly what we want them to: but sometimes this just doesn’t happen – at all. It’s then interesting to note how we respond to the ‘failure’ of the world in general to conform to our expectations…

“Damn! Kaye promised she’d update the report for me while I was stuck with that client. But Mary says she’s gone home, says she’s feeling ill – blast her, I need that report, right now! Why does she always let me down just when I really need her help?”

What’s your experience of Murphy’s Law with people: particularly where you’ve depended on someone, and they’ve unintentionally let you down. What do you feel when this happens?

Anger. Irritation. Blame – “it’s their fault it isn’t working!” Common though these are, none of them help to resolve anything – in fact, they almost always make it worse. And they also conveniently block the awareness that the world has worked perfectly well, in its own way: it’s our expectation of it that hasn’t…

Being more realistic about what we expect from the world will help. Being more aware of our own involvement in the weavings of the world will help. And so too, especially, will an awareness and an acceptance of the ways that the world does work. For example, there’s another twist that we might call ‘inverse Murphy’: “things can go right – if you let them”. The uncertainties of Murphy’s Law can work both ways, to our advantage as well as to our detriment: and if we only allow things to work in the ways we expect, can we honestly complain when things don’t seem to be working out for us?

“Things can go right – if you let them”: what’s your experience of ‘inverse Murphy’? What do you feel when something works in a way that you didn’t expect? Are you pleased that it’s working? Or annoyed, angry, even frightened, perhaps, that it didn’t work in the way that you expected? What else?

So it’s useful to develop a shift in awareness: when things don’t work out in the ways that we expect, it’s not so much the world ‘going wrong’, but a warning that our expectation of the world is wrong – or at least too fixed, too rigid. Life is ‘chaos with feedback’: so what we get back from the weird chaos of the world is its feedback, its response to us. And it’s up to us to notice it, accept that that’s what it is, and work with it – not complain about it! With that awareness, every ‘failure’ instead becomes a lesson, reminding us that the world, and our relationships within it, can work for us – but only if we let them.

It may seem weird… wyrd… but it does work. It’s often difficult, though, to see that most of what happens ‘to’ us is feedback from the wyrd. We choose, and something happens; but the ‘feedback’ often isn’t as simple as cause-and-effect, because every choice echoes up and down the wyrd, often coming back to us from the most unexpected directions. At times, the ways in which the wyrd ‘responds’ can be very weird indeed… and it’s up to us to recognise them, and make use of them as best we can.

That’s what we’ll explore here. And the first stage is to look at one of the most common experiences of ‘wyrdness’: the repeating patterns and loops into which our lives – and especially our relationships – tend to get stuck. Round and round the garden, getting nowhere slowly… that’s the feeling. So when that feeling comes again – as it so often does, for all of us – it’s time to look more closely at what’s going on, in our interaction with others, and with the wyrd.

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