K for Knots: the ties and troubles we make

Knot on the rope
Image source

Out of all the outdoorsy tricks I learned during my brief stint as a Venture Scout, my favorite is the knot. You only need a rope and some special knowledge to build shelter, secure objects, and save lives.

Knots are important symbols in our daily lives as well. The legendary Gordian knot that Alexander the Great sliced in half is a famous metaphor for a difficult, complex problem. “Tying the knot” refers to two people getting married. Knots in a stomach indicate nervousness- perhaps something important is about to happen.

Chances are, you’ve played the Human Knot, an ice breaker game that teachers and camp counselors often make kids play. You would’ve had to randomly take the hands of everyone else in the group to form a knot, and then work to unravel yourselves. The process of stepping through each others’ arms and legs is supposed to bring you closer together. I used to loathe this game, but I suppose there’s no faster way to break the ice than to purposefully tangle your limbs with those of complete strangers.

On a grander scale, we humans revel in tangling our lives with those of complete strangers. A great example is the fascinating Japanese reality show called Terrace House, in which six young strangers move into a beautiful house together, and a panel of commentators observe what they do. Each relationship between a pair of people is a thread that could become intertwined. Each episode ends with a cliffhanger where relationships and friendships reach their knottiest point. I eagerly start the next episode so I can watch how people deal with the latest dispute. Sometimes it takes an objective observer to pinpoint ways to unravel the disagreements.

Using knots as metaphors for our social interactions presents an important contradiction. They represent the conflicts we face in our social lives. They can also refer to the tight bonds between loved ones. This tells us that the most important connections we make are often borne out of conflict. Unraveling knots takes such perseverance and grit that we’d only spend the energy on people and situations we care about. Conflict resolution is an act of kindness.

We usually invest our time in reality TV shows to watch humans make a mess out of their surroundings. And when someone takes the trouble to acknowledge the presence of knots and disentangle them, the process is satisfying. Unlike the Gordian knot story, there’s no way to solve human relationships by slicing them open.

Sometimes, it seems like the world creates knots to annoy us. When our cords and hair tangle up, we curse the skies. When our human companions trouble us, we curse them. But embracing tangled messes can give us great appreciation for the knotted ropes that can bear loads of pressure, or the friendships that can survive all fights. Just ask a Scout.

This post is part of the Alphabet Project, where I write an article for each letter of the alphabet. It was inspired by Ash Huang’s Alphabet Meditations.

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