On Chaos

One of my great loves in life is backpacking, especially in the backcountry areas where fewer people go and the terrain is much less “groomed.” From a distance, some backcountry hiking areas can look uncharted, wild, even dangerous. This has become a helpful metaphor for me regarding chaos. Heading into that terrain with no map, no trail to follow, and without the proper gear can indeed be dangerous. But with proper preparation and guidance, the payoff can be amazing.

Aug. 2019, Eastern Sierras – the lake that my son & I had all to ourselves after a TOUGH hike.

I find the special ‘physics’ definition of chaos very helpful : “behavior so unpredictable as to appear random, owing to great sensitivity to small changes in conditions” (New Oxford American Dictionary). This specific definition appeals to me because it assumes that the variables aren’t random, but that they’re responding to “small changes in conditions.”

This strikes me as very human. Each person comes with a unique story, and that story influences their response to conditions. This means that each person is going to be an unpredictable variable. And with an increasing number of variables comes an increasing potential for chaos.

In the last couple of years, I have spent a good deal of my podcast time listening to Jordan Peterson. One idea he returns to frequently is the struggle between chaos and order. His research indicates that humans experience the greatest sense of meaning when they are engaged in that struggle; straddling that line with one foot in chaos and the other foot in order, working to maintain that balance.

If Peterson is right, that the greatest sense of meaning is found in balancing chaos vs order, then being open to chaos is the only path to experiencing a sense of meaning.

Not eliminating chaos, but balancing chaos against order.

To pull these concepts together:
If people are variables, and variables create chaos, then people create chaos.
If being open to chaos is the only path to meaning, and people create chaos, then being open to people is the only path to meaning.

As @michael shared in his Chaos & Caring article, “I’ve urged librarians to embrace as ‘much chaos as they can stand,’ an approach suggested by Clay Shirky in Cognitive Surplus.”

Or… ’embrace as many people as you can stand.’

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