The Case for Chaos

Text by Amy Maclin 

Once when I was going through a period of life upheaval, I went to an acupuncturist to relieve stress. For 50 minutes each week, I lay under hand-stitched tapestries of dolphins while listening to wind chimes, and when I left the room, I felt so damn rejuvenated that even the whites of my eyes were whiter. I slunk back to work drunk on the power of ancient healing and the milk of human kindness.

Then I'd get back to my office and encounter actual humans. Humans who brought their deadlines and their complaints and their problems and their swirling, sucking demands. I tried blocking off my cubicle with crime-scene tape, to extend my newfound well-being for a few precious hours -- but people just talked over it, so that never really worked. Maybe I should have wrapped the tape around my head.

We fight so hard to get to those little pockets of time when we don't have to fight anymore. But what if real, abiding stress relief lay in embracing chaos? If we kept ourselves together by expecting things to fall (at least a little bit) apart?

The Taoists have a parable: An old man falls into a rushing river, where he's dashed against some rocks and sucked below the surface. Some onlookers assume he's become chum until they see his white head pop up and the current washes him over to the bank, where he climbs out without a scratch. This guy has got to be some kind of spirit, they think, but he just laughs and says, "I accommodated myself to the water, not the water to me. Plunging into the swirl, I came out with the swirl, and that's how I survived."

Water is a common metaphor in Taoism, which may be the original argument in favor of going with the flow, says Derek Lin, director of Tao studies at the Great Tao Foundation of America in El Monte, California. "Water adapts to whatever container it's in," he tells me. "Like moving water, life can take off in any direction and cause you to lose your footing -- but what we have to do is yield and remain whole." According to the Tao, there's a "way" of the natural world, an organizing principle of the universe that just is and can't be fought: You're admiring the perfection of an apple tree when a Red Delicious falls and hits you on the head. The beauty and the gravity are of a piece, and we have to meet it with "wu wei," Lin says. Loosely translated as "nonstriving," wu wei is not the same as greeting the world with a metaphysical "whatever." "It's when we skillfully use our energy on things we can control, instead of wasting it fighting things beyond our control," Lin says. "You're at your best when you can approach a situation from a relaxed and detached mind-set. Dwelling on your various attachments -- worries, concerns, anxieties -- takes you out of that natural state of excellence."

Lest you think Lin can say this because he's nestled inside a tinkling pagoda: He has a day job as a manager in the tech field; for 12 ears he went home at night to translate the "Tao Te Ching" (the primary Taoist text) from ancient Chinese. The Taoist masters lived in cities as well as in rural settings, and practiced the Tao in everyday life, Lin points out. "As we rub elbows with people, they provide a gauge as to the extent of our progress," he says. "Living on a mountaintop doesn't give us access to other people's opinions and opportunities to help them, which is how we grow." So we might not want a world in which we can shut people out with crime-scene tape.

No matter how much we love order and predictability, it's rarely where the good stuff lies, agrees Mel Schwartz, a Westport, Connecticut, psychotherapist and author of "The Art of Intimacy, the Pleasure of Passion." "Confusion is the cusp of new insight," he says. Big changes -- the end of a bad old relationship, the beginning of a great new job, even world-shifting events like the civil rights movement -- always begin from an uncomfortable tipping point, he says, that sets the stage for temporary chaos: "The paradox is that when we're comfortable with not being in control, the chaos loses its grip" -- not unlike a martial art in which you use your opponent's energy to unhand him.

What I am calling "chaos," according to Schwartz, is a drama queen's word for the simple human condition of uncertainty, terrifying but also thrilling. "If I knew the outcome of everything, I'd never take my kids to a baseball game," he says. If we try to medicate away the pain and fear of uncertainty with shopping, a bathtub full of Merlot, or a new set of hanging file folders from Anal Retentives 'R' Us, they may provide temporary solace, but in the end it's hard to run from the fact that one of the most intolerable aspects of living is what makes it worth it. Schwartz asks me, "Is a life well lived about being in control?"

A life well lived in the face of uncertainty. I'm thinking of my father-in-law, who was born in the former Soviet Union in 1940, part of a generation ridden hard by history: World War II, followed by Stalinism and the Cold War. While the world was busy with that, he became a champion swimmer, then an electrical engineer, married, raised two kids, and lived a contented life drinking tea in his modest apartment. He felt relieved that his sons had reached adulthood without being sent to Afghanistan or falling into a vodka bottle. Then Communism collapsed, and shortly thereafter the country went with it.

This wasn't the chaos of marauding Soylent Green-style mobs, but something more subtle. At first, you'd be allowed to buy only two bricks of butter at a time. Then your paycheck stopped, and people quit coming to work after that. Sometimes long after that. (The truth is, we may be wired to keep busy, not to float around on lotus pads: A recent study published in the journal "Psychological Science" found that people who had something to do -- even something pointless, like a 15-minute walk to retrieve a piece of candy they could have easily gotten close by -- were happier than those who sat idly.)

"When the force of the current became so powerful, I stopped swimming against it," says my father-in-law, who as far as I know has never read the "Tao Te Ching." "The circumstances were bigger than I was. I had to be flexible. The people who had the most difficult time were the specialists, the ones who had worked their entire lives toward one outcome."

He became a handyman. He had always been good at putting things together; over the years he'd built all his family's furniture, hoarded found scraps of wood and metal and odd bits to repair whatever went wrong around the house. After the dust of economic collapse settled, people were making their own kinds of businesses, and they needed doors on hinges, knobs on doors. He loved the puzzle of not only planning electrical circuitry, but installing the wires with his hands, flicking the switch to see a room light up. "At first I did it just to survive," he says, "but in the end, it was more satisfying than anything I had done."

Chaos is where we find the raw material of creativity, says John Briggs, a distinguished professor of writing at Western Connecticut State University in Danbury and coauthor of "Seven Life Lessons of Chaos," which explores how the scientific discipline of chaos theory can enrich our daily lives. "The truth is that the universe was designed to be disorderly," he says. The "chaos" in chaos theory doesn't describe disarray but unpredictability, of complex systems that have "subtle and often beautiful patterns" lurking within. "This order is all around us in nature -- the clouds, the mountains, the planetary climate."

Momentarily let us nerd out: Chaos theory includes the study of dynamical systems -- sets of elements that interact in complex, often nonlinear ways -- connected by feedback. Say a flock of birds sit in a tree. One jumps a little, then the next, movements that are barely perceptible but fizzle up throughout the flock. At some point, one or more of those fizzlings turns into a cascade, and then every bird suddenly takes off. "As the birds explode into the sky, at first it looks like another form of chaos," Briggs says. "But quickly they coordinate through feedback into a swarm that moves in a flowing, ever-changing order -- an order within the unpredictability."

This phenomenon, Briggs says, is like human inspiration: a series of flutters and confusions that precede a flash of insight an organizing insight. "Creators often go through an 'immersion' phase, when everything they see or hear might be relevant," Briggs says. "One idea feeds into another, and a network of feedback forms. They emerge from the confusion with a new idea or answer."

The mark of a creative person, according to Briggs, is a willingness to accept ambivalence -- that liminal stage between problem and solution -- as a place of both discomfort and possibility. "We tend to spend our lives seeking contentment or a kind of mindless excitement, avoiding ambivalence because it makes us feel anxious. But there's another possible contradictory response to these feelings: Oh, wow, something's happening here. Let me see where it takes me."

When I e-mailed Benjamin Tong, a Taoist scholar and professor of clinical psychology at the California Institute of Integral Studies in San Francisco, to ask him how to manage uncertainty, he quoted the Taoist sage Chuang Tzu: "Do not seek fame. Do not make plans." (I'd requested a quick interview, and he had replied, not unkindly, that the subject is so complex he'd prefer to chat for eight hours. I felt frivolous, like Britney Spears wearing a kabbalah bracelet.) "What's important is not that you don't make plans, but that you're not so inflexibly attached to them," he added. "We plan for moments of lowering stress. Here on the West Coast, we even plan for earthquakes."

We can best roll with change when we're alert to our surroundings but not at the mercy of our circumstances, when we shore ourselves against life's contingencies by being attuned to something bigger than we are, whether that's God, or nature, or art, or science. (Or therapy!)

The last time I visited my father-in-law, the wheels fell off my suitcase just as we were rushing to catch our train. He could fix it, he insisted, and disappeared into his workroom -- a primordial disarray of washers, widgets, and half-dismantled gadgets -- and emerged with a perfectly sized set of caster wheels. With maddening calm, he proceeded to screw them onto the bottom of the suitcase while the minutes ticked away and our very molecules vibrated with anxiety -- but just in time, he fixed it. The wheels wobbled and were aesthetically displeasing, but they worked.

I thought of two things: First, if he hadn't cultivated that mess of a workroom, he'd never have been able to pluck out a solution. But I also thought of the Jewish concept of "tikkun olam" (in Hebrew, literally "repairing the world"). For contemporary Jews, tikkun olam usually refers to acts of charity or social justice, but it was born of the idea that at some point the universe broke apart, and we repair the chaos by putting it back together again. Maybe this is what it means to reorder the world -- not to ignore its fragmentations or hold out for perfection, but to make one broken thing at a time whole again. (The readiness is all.) We put our belongings right side up and rolled away.

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