Order and discipline are revered qualities, but they are met with a Yin to their Yang, and that Yin is Chaos.
A word unfairly tainted with a barrage of negative connotations, Chaos is not only an inevitability in life, but yields benefits to those who can embrace it in balance with order.
This article, assisted by the Daoist tadpoles of contrasting shades whose names both begin with ‘Y’ alongside the ancient Greek philosopher Epictetus, will hopefully transform your experience of chaos from a bed of nails into a bed of woollen entrails.
So what is Chaos and what makes it initially uncomfortable?
Chaos is typically described as something beyond our will and is often observed to have patterns that are unobservable, therefore it is largely unpredictable with conditions that are commonly unforgiving or inconvenient.
Some define it as a state of ‘total confusion with no order’ – this is Chaos in its extremity.
Although Chaos is clearly and disproportionately expressed through the media in the suffering of wars and famine, pandemics and homelessness, it doesn’t solely express itself through such extremity.
Have you ever had a device shut down before having saved your hours of work, losing all that labour to the digital void of irretrievable data?
Have you ever had a long-awaited holiday booked only for something (or someone) to cancel it or severely restrict and limit your experience away from work?
These are the typical experiences that give Chaos a villainous persona.
The worry and frustration these examples provoke within us subsequently deny us of being able to utilise the unpredictability in life for greater harmony in every aspect of our lives.
Chaos encourages us to be present
When our lives become dull and repetitive in the absolute compliance of Order, slowly becoming devoid of meaning and purpose, you may catch yourself doing your job automatically, where your brain could be wandering everywhere or nowhere and the job will still be done to the minimum standard.
When this happens, it is important to remember one thing: success is not born from the minimum standard.
When this mode is played out over a long period of time, it becomes your default setting: a comfortably numb autopilot.
Like fighters, if they were to not train outside of battle, when conflict collides into our everyday life, we are unprepared in a way that the consequences will be more dire – we may be the one receiving the knockout blow.
Being caught off guard will happen to everyone, but those who learn how to not be off guard for next time will be victorious in a way that fighters are when they’ve trained thoroughly in anticipation of their opponents performance.
This may sound like a form of Order, but the best training is often found in going head to head with situations where you may have little control. The best shadow boxers will not be the best actual boxers, especially if they’ve had no experience in the ring.
Chaos reminds us to not rely on assumptions
Sometimes, it would be wonderful if people weren’t so pesky in how they subvert our expectations.
A world where everyone is completely transparent, simple and easy to manoeuvre would resemble that of a chessboard, but the world is beyond being as binary as black and white.
Chaos reminds us to not assume.
Humans do not have the perception nor tools to predict every single action, thought and feeling an individual may have across their entire lifespan, because we are chaotic as well as we are ordered, with the balance shifting in accordance with the infinitely changing universe.
Do not rely too heavily on plans
This mutability means we need to constantly be listening, to be present with the world in its current form, to acknowledge that we too change with each and every passing moment.
Have you ever planned almost every move you’d make in an upcoming business meeting, a date, or a football match? Then, the event is happening and everything you’d planned becomes irrelevant and you have to throw that piece of planning paper out of the window?
Where, if you try to go back to that plan at the cost of acknowledging the energy in the room or on the pitch, you feel ajarred?
People aren’t just pesky when they subvert our expectations; not all surprises are unpleasant!
More often than not, the meeting, date and match will be dominated by a sense of flow if you ditch the limitations of your predictive abilities from several hours ago, and the experience would likely form likeable results.
The point isn’t to discourage all and any planning, but to be willing to let go of it as and when the situation requires you to do so.
‘It’s not what happens to you, but how you react to it that matters’ – Epictetus
Noticing the small things can have a big impact
Chaos often appears unpredictable in models where small changes have unexpectedly large effects, but the positive aspect of this remains true also.
If you master the art of proceeding past your initial perceptions of people and associated assumptions, the nuance you notice by listening and paying attention can lead to unprecedented change for the better.
Perhaps, you express the fact you notice the altered hairstyle your date has adopted for the dinner tonight and you appreciate the time and effort they’ve put into trying to solidify your attraction to them.
Perhaps, an employee has a day off and you notice that a task you hadn’t even thought of or previously acknowledged is left incomplete because of their absence, realising how they go above and beyond their contractual obligations.
Perhaps, a rather naughty pupil does not complete their reading homework and before you discipline them, you recall how they look at each page with a frustrated focus, struggling to perceive the letters in a way they can sound them out.
This small detail can lead you to the bigger picture and instead of punishing the student for their ‘flaws’, you can act with a compassionate curiosity that may help reveal if they are in need of extra support.
The easement they could then feel can ripple into their everyday life in a myriad of forms.
Noticing these small things can lead to large revelations about your relationships and circumstances in a way that informs you on how it is you interact with them more effectively, or if you even need to continue interacting with them.
‘We have two ears and one mouth so that we can listen twice as much as we speak.’ – Epictetus
Chaos can help ease the need to worry
Things can cause a chain of events that conclude with terrific, or terrible conclusions. How can we best discern what actions and effects will be for better or for worse?
Here is some help from Ancient China and it comes to our aid with a fable about a farmer, retold and elaborated upon by Alan Watts:
Once upon a time there was a Chinese farmer whose horse ran away. That evening, all of his neighbours came around to commiserate.
They said, “We are so sorry to hear your horse has run away. This is most unfortunate.”
The farmer said, “Maybe.”
The next day the horse came back bringing seven wild horses with it, and in the evening everybody came back and said, “Oh, isn’t that lucky. What a great turn of events. You now have eight horses!”
The farmer again said, “Maybe.”
The following day his son tried to break one of the horses, and while riding it, he was thrown and broke his leg.
The neighbours then said, “Oh dear, that’s too bad,” and the farmer responded, “Maybe.”
The next day the conscription officers came around to conscript people into the army, and they rejected his son because he had a broken leg.
Again all the neighbours came around and said, “Isn’t that great!” Again, he said, “Maybe.”
The whole process of nature is an integrated process of immense complexity, and it’s really impossible to tell whether anything that happens in it is good or bad — because you never know what will be the consequence of the misfortune; or, you never know what will be the consequences of good fortune.
This teaches us to not waste our energy by channelling it into worrying about consequences you know will bear some degree of discomfort, or in querying if a consequence will be ultimately ‘good’ or ‘bad’ as we will never truly know.
Life is far too chaotic for us to ever know. Thus, chaos saves us the labour of having to insufferably wallow in worrying as
‘Suffering arises from trying to control what is uncontrollable, or from neglecting what is within our power’ – Epictetus.
So, why worry when we can shift that same energy and focus into adapting to the inevitable so there will be “less to worry about”?
If you are worrying all day, it is unlikely you are able to wholly commit to what matters most to you in life.
‘There is only one way to happiness and that is to cease worrying about things which are beyond our will’ – Epictetus
Chaos is an inevitable part of life and we are a work in progress
So in all its inescapable presence, Chaos can help us become good listeners that are free of the world’s worries, of assumptions that annihilate our true understanding.
To be present in both the “bad” and the beautiful life has to offer us, using the former to appreciate the latter more deeply.
One can see how an infinite rally between Chaos and Order: Yin & Yang, can only come about if we champion both sides equally.
And, like the fluorescent orange plastic ball in a consistent table tennis rally, we are constantly moving between both sides of the table and we can see how this back and forth journey is implicit of the harmony between the two players.
As with everything mentioned in this article, no one is expected to learn and master every lesson overnight. We are all works in progress and like Rome, none of us will be built in a day, partly because of a few interjecting visits from our friend Chaos who can continue to season our lives with success if we listen to what it has to say.
And to conclude with some wise words:
‘No great thing is created suddenly’ – Epictetus