Wednesday, October 06, 2010

Chaos and Hope

 Chaos is not nothing.

Chaos is when "the world is too much with us," when everything around us is a "blooming, buzzing confusion."  Chaos is when nothing makes sense.  Sometimes chaos gets mixed up with catastrophe.  A catastrophe is an event that occurs with horrible and often unexpected consequences.  We didn't see it coming.  Catastrophe often leaves chaos in its wake.  Each may be unexplainable in ordinary terms or even measured by the yardstick of science.  Nevertheless, we try.  We invent stories to tame chaos and make it predictable, and we apply narratives, with a heavy dose of hindsight, to catastrophes in order to claim wisdom and foresight.

I've been think about chaos and catastrophe ever since reading Wally Lamb's recent novel, The Hour I first Believed, in which he makes use of the real catastrophe of the Columbine High School shootings to propel his narrative toward a conclusion that is both hopeful and puzzling.  One of his characters is a school nurse at Columbine and hides in a cupboard while the two boys are murdering students.  She suffers Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome which leads to yet another catastrophe in the narrative. Others struggle with the resulting chaos in their lives, trying to make sense out of what might just be random and meaningless suffering.  At the end of the book, however, those left standing find of measure of hope and redemption which Lamb symbolizes with a praying mantis (a butterfly was the symbol for chaos).

Lamb has written a big book with subplots aplenty to multiply the pages and supply the reader with numerous digressions, such as the history of Rheingold beer, chaos theory, the abolition movement and early feminism, prison reform, Iraq, Hurricane Katrina, tips on teaching English (using the legend of the Minotaur as drawn by Picasso, for example), how to make donuts, and so forth.  While the author cannot tidy up the catastrophe at Columbine, he controls the chaos of his narrative by ultimately connecting the dots that swirl around his protagonist, the oddly named Caelum Quirk, by illuminating his ancestry and identity which enables him to choose life.  Chaos is ultimately good for Caelum because it pushing him towards a re-engagement with the world.  Before the shit hits the fan,
Caelum is flying back to Connecticut to visit a dying relative when he sits next to Mickey, an expert on chaos theory. Like a prophet from the underworld, Mickey tells him "there's a self-organising principle at the edge of chaos. Order breeds habit, okay? But chaos breeds life."
Lamb, who admits to being a critical Catholic, told an interviewer, "I hold out hope that there is some organizing principle in the universe that somehow is protecting us from chaos. But I have my doubts, just like anyone else." His novel, he said, "is about people who are collaterally damaged by all sorts of trauma and chaos – everything from the chaos of participation in war to having your home flooded out by Hurricane Katrina."  Chaos can even be addictive.  At one point in the book, Caelum wonders if
maybe we’re all chaos theorists. Lovers of pattern and predictability, we’re scared shitless of explosive change. But we’re fascinated by it, too. Drawn to it. Travelers tap their brakes to ogle the mutilation and mangled metal on the side of the interstate, and the traffic backs up for miles. Hijacked planes crash into skyscrapers, breached levees drown a city, and CNN and the networks rush to the scene so that we can all sit in front of our TVs and feast on the footage.
I'll admit to being attracted to catastrophes which do not involve me because it helps to preserve the illusion of my own predictability.  That could never happen to me.  I'm a careful driver.  I would have recognized the danger signs if my child was psychotic and about to slaughter his fellow students.  If she'd been abusing drugs I would have known it.  Why would you end the marriage after 24 happy years together?  We are oh so predictable to ourselves, bastions of the ego against chaos.  Until the walls come tumbling down.

When you live long enough, anything could happen.  You could sit down with a doctor to go over the results of your tests and learn the worst, that you're going to die, sooner than expected.  A friend of mine from years ago recently announced on Facebook that his cancer was terminal; he was going to travel with his girlfriend and run up  credit card bills until his time was over.  Catastrophe might be a knock at the door, opened to reveal a rabble of law enforcement officers, their weapons drawn.  A tornado could flatten your house or a hurricane could cover it with water.  Or maybe as you settle into comfortable retirement in a tropical land, a letter from Social Security announces that your income has been suspended because a warrant has been issued for your arrest half the world away.  These are all forms of catastrophe, unexpected events that turn a nice predictable life into chaos in an instant.  The question is:  can chaos breed hope and a new life?

Like the author, I have my doubts about a supreme organizing principle who can protect us from chaos and maybe even catastrophe if we believe and pray in the right way.  Buddhism asserts strongly that there is no predictability, that all life is uncertain, and that attempts to control and manage chaos only lead to further suffering.  We must somehow become comfortable with the knowledge that our circumstances constantly change because of conditions probably unknown to us.  Perfect predictability, even by science, is impossible.  Trying this idea on for size is not the same as accepting it in action.  Catastrophes breed disorder rather than enlightenment.  Death and Disaster strip us to our basic imprinting and call forth primitive logic that demands an answer.  Why me, oh Lord? 

I do agree, however, with the chaos theorist in Lamb's book who claims that "order breeds habit" and "chaos breeds life."  Predictability is boring; comfortable yes, but deadening to the soul.  As a creature of many habits, I know the seduction of a well ordered life.  Vexing choices can be narrowed down to a precious few and the comfort of knowing what always comes next.  As far as I'm concerned, that kind of a patterned life leads straight to Alzheimer's and the comfort of a straight jacket and Pampers.  I'm not like an acquaintance who raced Porsches in his spare time because he liked the thrill of speed.  And I'm not crazy about diving off high boards into small pools.  But I do like the gift of surprise that comes with a new place, friend, food or idea.  I believe that it's completely human to attempt to tame chaos by searching for hidden causes within the "blooming, buzzing confusion," but I also think it's utterly hopeless.  It's a variant of the Groucho Marx line, "I don't want to belong to any club that will accept me as a member."  I prefer living in a world that is ultimately chaotic and mysterious because it makes me feel more alive.

In two weeks I leave Thailand for a trip to California that I have resisted for nearly six months.  I do not know what will happen after I arrive, although the goal of the trip is to deal with some serious financial and legal problems that have made my life here untenable.  The letter I received from Social Security in May threw my life into total chaos, making it impossible to plan ahead.  Never one for the ostrich technique of sticking one's head in the sand, I struggled mightily to understand the situation I faced and the options available to me.  I expect I accelerated my aging process by ten years.  Ultimately, I bowed to the inevitable and only conclusion, that I must face these demons; not taming or defeating them but accepting them, as the girl does in Picasso's Minotour etching.  Although I try to imagine what will happen -- will the beast devour or befriend me? -- the outcome is at this point unpredictable.

Reality always offers two extreme choices: death or life. Getting married was my way to choose life (I can hear my bride saying, "Tee rak, you think too much!").  Nan and I have received numerous congratulations from friends near and far on our nuptials last week.  I've posted photos on Facebook and Flickr of our nearly year and a half together to show how wonderful my life has become since we met.  This weekend we're off for a short honeymoon on Ko Samed, the closest island paradise to Bangkok.  And I've promised that if a swift a thorough resolution of my problems can be obtained in California, I will return to take her to Korea to see the snow for our real honeymoon celebration.  I wish that this outcome was predictable, but it's not.

Yesterday I took the grades I'd calculated for my students to Wat Srisudaram where I've just completed my fifth term teaching English to monks who are studying for an undergraduate degree.  Last week I gave them their final exam.  At school, I met with Phramaha Suriya, the chairman of the Foreign Languages Department in the Faculty of Humanities and told him of my upcoming trip back to the U.S.  He's been there numerous times and although I still find his English a little hard to understand he likes to chat with me about various places he has visited.  "Are you going to Ohio?" he asked, knowing that I was born there.  "Not this time," I said.  I told him I was uncertain how long I would be gone and hoped to be back for classes in December (last year there were only three school days before New Year).  "Don't worry," he said.  "You can send them their homework by email."  I got Dr. Suriya's email address so I can let him know my return date.

Now that my plane ticket has been purchased and I'm trying to find a ride from the San Francisco airport and a place to stay in Santa Cruz, I feel as if I have a leg in two worlds.  Bangkok is fading to a shadow (it might be the succession of cloudy days and frequent rain) and I am starting to remember people, places and events after three years of storing them away in the cupboards of my mind.  It could also have something to do with listening to podcasts of "Democracy Now," "This American Life" and "Fresh Air" as I walk around the streets here and ride the bus.  It's still impossible to feel more excitement than dread, but I cheer up at the thought of seeing old friends and browsing through the book shelves at Logos and the Bookshop.  What will it be like to experience cold weather for the first time after my lengthy sojourn in the tropics?  Will America feel almost as strange as Thailand did when I first arrived here in August of 2007?  I hope so.  It's that strangeness that brings the promise of new life.  With that life comes hope, despite any chaos and confusion and threats of catastrophe.  And hope for me is personified by Nan.

1 comment:

ivan49 said...

Hi Dr Will,

Just came across your Blog, which I thoroughly enjoyed. I am presently living and working in Singapore and have visited Thailand many times, to the point that the inevitable has happened? yes I will be getting married. I have filed for a K-1 Visa, as it seems like that is the fastest?? (6 months to 12 ) way for Arissara to get a U.S.visa, although we do not necessarily plan on living their, just another option. I will be 62 this Feb and have played around with the possibility of retiring, so reading that your SS has been stopped, floored me! So, I wish you the best Dr Will, and hope this will turn out in your favor in the shortest amount of time.

Thank you for your Blog.

Ivan