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November 12th, 2020
Supposedly, when Alexander the Great was heading east, he came across a legendary knot in Phrygia, near the modern day capital of Ankara in Turkey. That impenetrable tangle of rope was bound to a prophecy about any person who could undo the knot. The prophecy foretold that whoever could accomplish the task would go on to conquer all of Asia. And relatively speaking, Alexander accomplished this to an undeniably impressive extent.
The common story is that Alexander took out his sword and sliced the knot in half. This is the picture perfect solution - it looks good in a movie, it sounds epic and it’s iconic of the sort of bravado that would be required to set out upon distant horizons with the aim of conquering all the land of one’s fellow man.
The real story is naturally disputed, and the most prevalent alternative interpretation offers far more nuance and substance to ponder. The fabled Gordian knot apparently bound an Ox-cart that was linked to the founding of the previous king to the place where it was kept. And regardless of the version of the story, Alexander apparently did puzzle over the knot without success. It’s just like the classic hero, impatient like his ancient shadow Achilles to toss away slow and steady concentration for an impetuous answer riding on the edge of a blade.
The alternative, however, holds that after realizing that knot was impossible in it’s current state, Alexander pulled the linchpin from the yoke of the ox-cart, thereby freeing the two ends of the cord. It takes a rather cleverly tied knot to be remedied without access to the ends of the rope in which it’s made, and most aren’t of this variety, and neither it seems was the Gordian knot. The trick, perhaps, was to realize that it actually was impossible in it’s current state, and to change the circumstances surrounding the knot in order to get at it in a meaningful way.
A giant tangled knot is a great metaphor for any complicated problem. Such knots bewilder as to where one should start, and it demands that it’s form be totally studied and learned by the challenger at the task in order to make any meaningful headway. How perfect is that description for much of the most challenging and worthwhile tasks that face us in life?
So often we are lured to think of the quick solution, the get-rich-fast scheme, the short cut, the sharpened blade to slice right through the cantankerous problems of life. And yet, so often, if not always, such short and quickly considered solutions of speed backfire, whereas the slow work, the consistent consideration and the willingness to sit down and really solve wins out the race, like the steadfast tortoise trundling past the sleeping hare, exhausted from it’s ill-fated sprint.
Quick, decisive action certainly has it’s place - as on the battlefield. The point is to realize when the context begs for one or the other slower, more considerate solution. Civilization has created an environment more and more conducive and in need of that slower, more considerate strategy - that Gordian solution that hides behind the flashier, popular, impatient action.