Someone close to me shook me to the core this week. It started as a casual conversation about Muppet Theory. The theory is based on Jim Henson’s The Muppets and the gist is this: there are chaos muppets and there are order muppets. Order muppets like things tidy and predictable, ie Kermit or Fozzie Bear, and chaos muppets are unpredictable and don’t give a f*ck about predictability, ie Animal or Miss Piggy. At the start of this conversation, I felt quite comfortable. I’d heard of muppet theory, I love theories in general, I love muppets in general- all was well. I even knew which muppet I most identified with: Animal.
I’d like to think that if I were the drummer in the muppet band Dr. Teeth and the Electric Mayhem I, too, would play the cymbals with my mouth. Animal gives zero fucks about norms. Animal’s is a true experimental artist. Animal knows full well what to do with drums and cymbals and that if they follow certain patterns music will emerge, but Animal is as likely to use their actual musical precision as they are to use their teeth as drumsticks and fully- to the core- delight in the surprising sounds and sensations. Animal is how I feel on the inside.
I told this to my friend and he raised his eyebrows. “I hate to break this to you but you… are an order muppet,” he said. “I can see why you would say that,” I said, given that I had, in point of fact, just hours before told him about my daily routine, which is time-boxed, color-coded, heavy on the checklists. My morning routine, rarely deviated from, looks like this:
Meditate for 20+ minutes when I wake up
Work out a laughably small amount
Write in a gratitude journal for no less than 2 minutes
Steep tea for the correct amount of time
Put my glasses on
Drink tea and eat breakfast
And that’s all within an hour of waking up. To my friend (who self-identifies as an order muppet), I was *clearly* and *unequivocally* an order muppet. I ceded the point that I *present* as an order muppet much of the time, but I could not bring myself to concede that I *am* an order muppet. “You’ve never seen me perform,” I said. “True,” he said. To drive home my point (to which of us, I do not know) I picked up a piece of paper sitting next to me and threw it across the room. “Chaos!” I said. “That’s the most orderly expression of chaos I’ve ever seen in my life,” he said. “You’ve never seen me perform,” I said.
It will come as a shock to no one here that I am fascinated with the relationship between order and chaos. Always have been, maybe always will be. However, this conversation about muppets had me thinking about my inner muppet chaos. Am I truly Animal inside or am I just an order muppet worshiping at the altar of chaos? Have I gotten so good at controlling my own inner chaos muppet that it no longer spills out of me enough for me to consider myself a chaotic muppet? Is the chaos in response to order or order in response to chaos? Complexity, I remind myself, has no root. I picked up the piece of paper and put it in the recycling bin.
My relationship to chaos was further shaken a few days later when I listened to a podcast with Brad Stulberg, one of my favorite authors, talking about his experiences with OCD. He described his own journey (so far) coming to terms with this facet of himself and went on to describe his curiosity about how OCD may present in high-performance athletes (his realm of expertise as an athletic coach). Hearing him talk reminded me of something I haven’t thought about in a while, which is that I, too, have had experience with OCD. When I was in elementary school I began having persistent, pervasive, and intrusive thoughts and compulsions. I would, at the end of my day, having checked that my homework was done, everything was crossed off the list, all my books were in my bookbag, and my lunch was ready to go in the fridge for the next day, crawl into bed. But had I really checked that my homework was in the folder? I would get up and check again. Before I was even back in bed I would be unsure if I had actually done it. I’d check again. You get the idea. My parents took me to a psychologist and he prescribed me… something. I was too young to remember and my mom doesn’t remember either. All I know is that my memory of the experience is that it was a tiny amount (we used a pill cutter to halve a tiny white pill every morning or every few days, I’m not sure) and I only took it for a few months. It helped. I stopped feeling compelled to check things to the degree to which I had just months before. Hearing Brad’s accounting of OCD reminded me how varied the experience can be. I found myself wondering what, if any, ways it was showing up in my adult life. I thought back to one of the first public talks I ever gave back in 2017 which was about how intensity needs an outlet. It outlined, among other things, my relationship to new years resolutions, one of my strongest compulsions- in a good way.
Brad described a curiosity he had about this manifestation in high-performance athletes (a thing I am not but stay with me). A professional swimmer might find themselves, say, home for the holidays. They would, nevertheless, get up early, find a pool, and swim back and forth for three hours staring at a straight line on the bottom of the pool. If they didn’t do this ritual they would be to some degree unable to function that day, or at least unable to stop thinking about the workout they missed. Intrusive thoughts. He recounted the high degree of mental illness and breakdowns among athletes who leave their sport due to injury or retirement. His research questions the relationship between compulsion, OCD, and high performance. I can say, without a doubt, that while I am not a high-performance athlete, I spent my 20s teaching up to 30 fitness classes a week before shifting some of that intensity and ritual to my creative life. This isn’t to say that all intensity, or even all compulsion, is bad, but rather that it presents in myriad ways in myriad circumstances.
Two words kept coming up as Steve spoke: Order. Chaos. The internal experience of chaos and the external search for order. I feel a strong kinship to this framework and a delight that this relationship that so fascinates me- and so fascinates many of us- is being explored and researched in so many realms. I still don’t know what kind of muppet I am but if I’m being honest, I’ve never been very comfortable with binaries anyway. Why can’t I be both Animal and Kermit? I can, of course. There are no rules but those we draw up for ourselves.