Dealing with the Chaos of Challenging Times

“In all chaos there is a cosmos, in all disorder a secret order.”  Carl Jung’s words have been echoed by many across the ages.  Albert Einstein said, “Order is for idiots; genius can handle chaos.”  But when our lives are in chaos, most of us long for order.  We might like to experience change or at least unpredictability from time to time—after all, variety is known to be the spice of life—but to have either as a constant condition, at a time like now, can feel exhausting and terrifying.  It’s no wonder anxiety spikes when we can’t create the kind of order we crave; we know most things are beyond our control, but we persist in believing we can control our life circumstances, at least—and to some degree, much of the time, we can.  But move to a different place where we know nobody, lose a job we were counting (or if we’re lucky, be forced to work from home), have our lives change overnight through no choice of our own, and the order that makes us comfortable disappears.  We’re a lot less likely to appreciate the cosmos, and a lot more likely to feel like victims—or idiots.  Yet chaos is essential if we want to create anything new (consider compost, especially now that a lot of people are planting “victory gardens”).  Here are three reasons why: 1) Being comfortable doesn’t encourage creativity—discomfort does.  2) We’re less likely to develop, or use, skills or techniques we aren’t as familiar with if we already know how to deal with a situation.  3) We have no compelling reason to explore unknown possibilities unless we’re confronted with chaos.

  1. Being comfortable doesn’t encourage creativity—discomfort does.

I once was hired to paint a mural in a large living room, of a clematis vine that stretched around all four walls.  The first day and some of the second was spent drawing it, in detail; the blank walls presented a sort of disguised chaos I had to conquer with composition.  After some hours of this, I had so much pain in my drawing hand, I told the contractor I wasn’t sure how I could finish; OTC painkillers weren’t doing the job.  He told me to switch hands.  “I can’t draw with my left hand,” I said.  “Yes, you can,” he replied.  “Try it.”  I did, and the mural was saved; not only did I draw with my left hand, I painted with it, too.  I found that using my left hand changed how I was thinking, and I got more creative. The client was thrilled with the mural, which was, of course, the whole point.  Similarly, although the chaos of the unknown can induce not only discomfort but panic in many people, it’s only then they will ask for help or try something new.  I see this in my clients daily.  Both asking for help and trying something new require creativity, because in both cases, we have to identify and pursue new possibilities (see #3).

  1. We’re less likely to develop, or use, skills or techniques we aren’t as familiar with if we already know how to deal with a situation.

Yes, this follows directly from #1.  One of my favorite stories is about Ella Fitzgerald, a famous jazz singer.  As a young girl, she competed in a talent contest at the Apollo Theater in Harlem.  She was planning to dance, but when she got on stage she was so terrified she couldn’t move—so she sang instead.  She sang so well that an entirely different future was born in that moment, and the rest, as they say, is history.  Another way of looking at how to get creative with chaos is shown in an ancient Tibetan Buddhist story about a monk asked to help build a temple there, when the work was repeatedly blocked by demons.  Finally, the monk, Padmasambhava, decided to talk with them, and explain what he was trying to do.  He ended up befriending them, and with their help, he finished the temple.  We tend to think of our difficulties as demons we have to defeat if we don’t want to be swallowed by chaos.  What if these demons are actually unrecognized allies or strengths that can help us deal with the chaos more effectively?  What if the demon of a pandemic, along with its very real powers of death and destruction, is also somehow giving us a gift?

  1. We have no compelling reason to explore unknown possibilities unless we’re confronted with chaos.

I swear, I think this is the underlying plot of every sci-fi or fantasy story, and that includes Star Trek, Star Wars, and every single superhero comic.  Chaos is overwhelming.  It can be represented by wormholes, black holes, supernovas, battles, tidal waves, earthquakes…the list goes on.  We know so little of the universe we’re in that if we pay attention, we are forced to realize that most of it is chaos far beyond our understanding or control, and that in order to deal with it, we have to explore some new ideas or open ourselves up to possibilities we can’t imagine.  When my husband and I first moved to Oregon, I already had a job there, but we didn’t have housing, and our budget didn’t allow for any extra trips to find a place.  We drove up to the little coastal town here I would start my job with the few things we could bring in our van, and camped while we looked for a place to rent.  As the rainy days went by we looked at house after house, including many I would never have bothered with if we had more options.  My optimism dissipated.  We knew nobody, and although the scenery was beautiful, it rarely stopped raining.  Our days were structured only by the routines of camping and the seemingly endless search for somewhere to live, and I finally realized we might still be camping when I started my job, which made me cry.  I felt pummeled by the weight of so much chaos I could barely keep it together; nothing felt right and I wanted some kind of order back in my life.  Just in time for us to move in the evening before my first day, a house we’d given up on opened up at a lower rent.  I remember taking my first shower there with a tarp rigged up as shower curtain and living out of suitcases and a trunk for the first couple of months.  By then we’d figured out where to do our laundry, buy groceries, and get coffee or sandwiches, which helped us create some order.  I sometimes wonder how we did that, and how I functioned with the level of anxiety I had.  What got me through was a laser-like intention to find the right place, and create order from the chaos.  Maybe, in this time of chaos, setting and focusing on an intention—of staying safe, of being in touch, of simply doing the best you can–will help you navigate, and discover new ways of coping.

Idiot, victim, survivor, or genius?  Order, or chaos?

So, in summary, we’re surrounded by chaos that somehow has its own order.  I think it’s safe to say that each of us is probably both genius and idiot, survivor and victim—with a ruling desire to know and somehow control what’s in our lives–including the effects of COVID-19–by imposing order.  The question is, can we do more than that?  Can we do more than just cope?  Can we actually create something worthwhile rather than just trying to get from day to day?

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