Photo Source: Andrew Kuznetsov
Listen to the way we use the word chaos: “Everything was in total chaos.” “After all that, the chaos was over.” “I’m so glad to be out of that chaotic relationship.”
There is something embedded in the word “chaos” that makes it a negative word. At all cost, we avoid it like a plague. We work to ensure chaos never happens. It’s right up there with words like “confusion” and “disaster”.
We are obsessed with order. We like things to be as is, as we hope or intend it to be. We very much prefer peace, and rightly so. Yet we also know that change is not always a bad thing. Change requires a better understanding of where we’ve been, where we are and where we intend to go.
But the notion of order is linked to a sense of predictability. Ever since Newton introduced the motif of determinism in the 17th century, it has become a major tenet of our culture.
One example is knowing that you move from Standard One to Standard Two in primary school, and from Standard Six to Form One.
Chaos on the other hand brings us to the brink of either meaning or madness, a make or a break. It is the absence of predictability and for most people, this is outright daunting.
What happens when you complete Form Five? What happens when you complete university?
Sometimes life’s transitions or crises present chaos in the form of an illness, death, job loss or even a break-up and it feels like the rug you have been standing on was pulled from beneath you and you free fall until you manage to grab on to something.
You probably can see where I am going with this. That chaos is the first ingredient to new things. It is ambiguity and uncertainty but it is also an opportunity for the new. It is an opportunity to be creative.
The need for chaos
The most innovative changes stem from a form of chaos. When Rosa Parks, an African-American woman, was too tired to give up her seat on the bus to a white man, chaos erupted and the civil rights movement was catalysed. She was later known as “the first lady of civil rights”.
As people of perspective and leaders in our own fields, we know deep inside that chaos itself is not a problem.
It is the response we have to a problem that is more important. How effective we are is determined by how quickly we figure out what to do to regain our stability. Are we resilient enough? This takes creativity.
But to take this a little further, I would like to suggest that it is not about bouncing back up. The suggestion is that chaos is not the enemy of life and creativity. It is a necessary ally.
Real stability is not a result of the elimination of chaos. Rather, it comes from the creative structures that emerge out of chaos.
In hindsight we know this. If we look back at chaotic times in our lives, we see that new things come as a result of a chaotic season, not in spite of it.
Yet we still tend to hurry towards order and structure. To quote Pablo Picasso, “the chief enemy of creativity is good sense”.
I believe he was referring more to the mindset that we tend to have. We always feel a need to quickly solve a problem and move on to other things.
We want to know we have control. We want to know that we can regain stability.
My housemate always talks about how we like to obsess about having answers to questions. She does not mean to say this is wrong. She is merely suggesting that if we do this, we might miss the point or miss the opportunity to be properly “creative” in our problem solving.
But embracing chaos means that we live with the questions and the ambiguity a little longer than we care to.
Embracing the unknown
Gilda Radner, a comedian from Saturday Night Live, seems to have captured this concept in her reflections on her bout with ovarian cancer, which later took her life:
“I wanted to be able to write on the book cover: ‘Her triumph over cancer’ or ‘She wins the cancer war.’ I wanted a perfect ending.
“Now I’ve learned the hard way that some poems don’t rhyme and some stories don’t have a clear beginning, middle, and end. Like my life, this book is about not knowing, having to change, taking the moment and making the best of it, without knowing what is going to happen next. ‘Delicious ambiguity’ as Joanna said.”
Life and organisations are not static. It is far more appropriate to view it as a rhythmic and modulating transformational organism.
Order and chaos work together
It is necessary to have intervals of order and chaos. Both are important in transformation and moving on to new. Order and chaos work together to bring about good changes.
To relate, I had too many ideas about what I wanted to do after Form Five. From being a journalist, to a doctor, to an interior designer, to an engineer then a lawyer all in intervals of two weeks, each time more confident than the last that THAT was what I was going to do with my life.
I felt my seven As for SPM could take me to a lot of places. But doors kept shutting in my face and I had no choice but to do Form Six. Chaos.
Academically, my grades took a steady decline. But with so many other external factors, I grew as a person.
I wrestled with many issues but I noticed my ability to relate to people because of my struggles. I liked the fact that a number of friends were confiding in me and seeking advice on different struggles they faced. I’d like to think my advice was sound.
Unfortunately there was no grading for this because I scraped through STPM. But being still eligible, as order would have it, I applied for various degree courses in various public universities. My whole application was rejected. Chaos again.
By divine grace, I appealed and got a placing in a course I never, in all my imagination, thought I would do.
All in all, I had a wholesome campus experience. I learned to enjoy my course and took each day as it came, growing in depth and a little bit of width.
But I graduated knowing that what I had studied would hardly have anything to do with my livelihood in the future.
By this time, chaos and I had become acquainted. I lingered for a couple of months in the uncertainty of the question by trying out different things, to finally arrive at my new order. A job that I intended to build my career upon. And so it will modulate. Chaos is in every corner.
But learning to foresee that order will come around as well, in a bigger and transformational way, is probably one of the biggest lessons I have learned to date.