I’d like to share with you a lesson I’ve learned about the different ways that us humans create order in the world around us, and about which ways are good, and which are bad. I found this lesson to apply both to my professional life and my personal life; I’ve learned this lesson by taking a walk in the Givat Ram campus of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem.
The Hebrew University in Jerusalem is divided between two big campuses. The Givat Ram campus, located in the center of Jerusalem, houses the faculties for math, physics, computer science, and a bunch of other exact sciences, including the ambitiously named Institute of Advanced Studies, leaving the humanities to the other campus.
Many people would agree that Givat Ram is a fine-looking campus. Beyond the architecture of the faculty buildings, its most prominent feature is the various pieces of nature. As a visitor would make his way from the campus entrance on the campus’ main walkway, he would notice, on his right, big batches of different kinds of exotic-looking flowers and plants, growing right there in the open. Each type of plant relegated to its own rectangular plot, as if you were walking in a museum of exotic plants. On his left our visitor would see perfect rectangular patches of green grass.
(Note: The above photo is not actually from the Givat Ram campus, but from somewhere else. It’s quite similar though.)
When I studied at that campus, which was a period of 3 years, I was not a student. I would attend mathematics lectures and do homework assignments, but I was not enrolled in the university. To the best of my knowledge I was the only person in the Givat Ram campus to have done that at that time. People I’ve spoken with would sometimes ask me, why? If I’m going to the trouble of studying, why not get a degree while I’m at it? I answered that I don’t like having the university decide for me which classes I must take, and how I must learn each topic. I believe that many of the core beliefs that universities operate on are wrong. I wanted to be able to make my own decisions on how to study, and carve my own path. Not enrolling to the university allowed me to do that. I enjoyed the lectures, but I resented the establishment that organized them.
I’ve spent 3 years in that campus, and after a while I was surprised to notice that I did not like the campus itself. Something about it was off, but I couldn’t put my finger on what it was exactly.
Until one day I was taking a walk near the math faculty. I was looking blankly at the plants and grass, my mind occupied with something else. Then I noticed something: On one of the perfect rectangles of green grass, there were a bunch of simple-looking purple flowers growing. There were maybe 30 of them, and they were common flowers, not exotic specimen like most of the flowers in the campus. It was immediately obvious that these flowers were not planted by the university gardeners; while all the other plants in the area were planted in carefully designated sections, these flowers were growing in a haphazard pattern, which looked from above like a spray, breaking the sanctity of the grass.
Then it all clicked for me: I hated the campus because the flowers and plants, however exotic looking, were made to grow in humorlessly designated areas, a batch of each type of flower in its own plot. Let me explain why that upsets me.
What is the real beauty of a flower? When we look at exotic flowers, the first thing that we notice is their visual beauty, which is stunning. But, I claim that their visual beauty is just an intermediary to their real beauty. Their real beauty is their life story: Their insistence to grow, to display themselves to the world and to expand a lot of precious resources in giving birth to the next generation, despite of the brutal, hostile environment. Any beauty that they have is a result of that.
The same could be said for people.
To make a concrete analogy: If beauty were a liquid product, then their life would be the factory producing it, and their visual beauty would be a pipe through which that magic liquid flows to us; a person who sees just the pipe, may assume that the pipe is the source of the beauty, and get rid of the factory which they would regard as just a nuisance. Then they’d be left with whatever beauty is still left in the pipe, and after they’d consume that they’ll be left with nothing but emptiness and frustration.
This is what happened with the exotic flowers in the campus. The exotic flowers were bringing a message of the wildness of a jungle, of beauty in the midst of danger and unpredictability; but that message was ruined by humans, who wanted just the beauty, and had such an aversion to unpredictability that they wouldn’t even let the flowers grow free. Instead of the flowers sending a message of beauty and wildness, they were sending a message of the cowardice of those people.
Perhaps I’m being a bit harsh towards these gardeners; all they were trying to do was set up a pleasant garden, which they did successfully. What bothers me is that nature is inherently not pleasant, so I find it disagreeable to use nature to send a message of pleasantness.
Nature is not about two old ladies taking a walk in the campus, saying to each other, “Oh my, look at these exquisite flowers!” Nature is about sex, extreme selfishness, violence, constant danger of starvation, and last but not least, killing. Even a flower, which is a less ferocious creature than a leopard, is just a big vagina. It’s not being beautiful in order to entertain you, it’s trying to seduce bees so they will come and pollinate it, and then it could reproduce. If the flower could have raped and murdered those bees instead it would have gladly opted to do that rather than spend so much energy on growing colorful petals. It’s not there to be a fucking museum piece, it’s there to survive and replicate.
An exotic flower trapped in a rectangular plot makes as much sense as a sterile woman with silicon breast implants.
Going back to the simple purple flowers: These purple flowers, despite being more common and docile in appearance, were in effect wilder than their exotic cousins, because they were the only ones really growing free. They had water, they had air, so they went ahead and grew, campus zoning rules be damned. They are the ones that had the real beauty. They had little in the pipes, but they had everything in the factories.
I drew a parallel between those purple flowers and my own status within the university. Unlike all the students walking around me in that campus, I wasn’t trying to get a fancy degree I could impress employers with; I was going where my curiosity and passion took me, using the resources available at my disposal, and if it meant attending classes in a university I’m not enrolled in, so be it.
This thought taught me the first half of the lesson, which is this: Humans like to create order in the world. They like to divide things into groups and categories. That’s a fine thing by itself. Order is a good thing. Being able to tell one genus of flower from the next, and having a different latin name for each of them, is a wonderful thing that allows us to better understand the nature around us. But sometimes, as in the example with the Givat Ram campus, the complusion for order defeats the purpose, and by forcing our order on nature we destroy the very thing we were trying to enjoy.
Real-world examples for the damages caused by an excess zeal for order are plentiful; governments and big corporations are the usual suspects. One example is the way governments approach startups. Nowadays the government of every country wants to have more startups and small businesses founded between its borders, in order to stiumlate the economy; every country wants to look as startup-friendly as possible. And yet when you try to actually start a startup, governments will require you to go through seven layers of bureaucracy hell. A friend of mine wanted to start a business importing a new model of electric bike made in China to sell in Israel; the government put so much bureaucratic hoops for him to jump through, that it took him 6 months of working on it before he finally gave up. (The issue was that the bikes were certified by the European safety regulations, but not by the Israeli ones, and getting the Israeli certificates was very problematic.) Again we have good intentions: The government is just trying to ensure that Israelis use safe products that passed inspection. But they do it with such zeal and inflexibility that they’re snuffing out people’s passion for entrepreneurship and innovation, which the same government is trying to encourage.
Let’s move on from these depressing thoughts to the good way of creating order in chaos. By a delightful coincidence, I learned the second part of the lesson by taking a walk in a different part of that same campus.
As our visitor keeps walking a few minutes south, past the exotic flowers, past the purple ones, past the faculty of mathematics, he will come upon a less-visited part of the university, with quite a different terrain. Instead of a plateau, he is presented with a rocky hill, in which big trees and other shrubbery grow wild. That small forest, located between the mass of faculty buildings and the dorms, is a popular place for couples who live in the nearby dorms to get some privacy from their roommates in the evenings.
The campus’ management, previously presented and resented in this writing, had actually done a wonderful thing with that forest. Because the uneven and dirty terrain is not pleasant to walk in, they’ve built a long wooden walkway, a deck, held maybe a meter in the air over the rocky ground by wooden beams. The wooden deck is perfectly even and pleasant to walk on. It doesn’t lead to the other side of the forest; there’s a way around the forest for people who want to get to the other side. The wooden walkway leads into the center of the forest, and ends there. It’s meant for people who wish to enjoy the beauty of the forest without getting dirty.
I love that wooden walkway.
Why? Observe how the walkway is built. On one hand, it’s a piece of manmade order inside the chaos of nature; if the fact that it’s a wooden deck wasn’t enough, consider that the entire walkway, when viewed from above, sketches a regular geometric shape. But on the other hand, the walkway structure respects the chaotic nature around it.
The first reason for that is that it touches as little of nature as possible. The narrow wooden beams used to hold it up from the ground are an essay on minimizing the pollution of nature by manmade structures; they’ve been made as minimalistic as possible without risking having the entire structure collapse. Our visitor, walking on the deck, can very well imagine that he’s walking on little more than air, suspended by a magical force a meter above wild nature.
The second reason is that it doesn’t try to control the hill’s structure, like the gardeners tried with the exotic flowers; it silently conforms to the hill’s shape. In areas where the terrain elevation is lower, the wooden beams become longer, to accomodate for the change. When I look at that, I imagine the architect of the walkway being carefully attentive to the nature that he’s building his creation on. He’s not shouting “look at my beautiful wooden deck!” but rather whispering “we hope you enjoy this beautiful hill, feel free to walk on the deck so you won’t get your pants dirty.”
The wooden deck can be seen as a helpful diagram sketched in pencil by a student in a textbook, around an important piece of information written in ink; it helps explain, it points out the interesting parts and gives access to them, but it’s there only as the secondary artifact to the information written in ink.
This is the second half of the lesson: The right way to create order in chaos is to understand that your order plays second fiddle to the chaos. You’re not taming the chaos; you’re enjoying the privilege of observing it and playing by its rules, like a modest traveler to a foreign country, enjoying the sights while respecting the place’s customs. You’re silently listening to the chaos, concentrated and attentive, feeling for every minute change and adapting your order to it, making your wooden walkway hug the hill perfectly.
Thanks to Igor Kreimerman for taking photos for this post. Thanks to Tal Shani and Amir Rachum for reviewing drafts.