First published in Moondance, March 21, 2011
When spring arrives in New England, every acre burgeons into chaos as millions of spores and microscopic one-celled wonders, plants, fungi, animals, and birds emerge from an icy sleep into manic activity. Every year I marvel at this emergence of boundless life for a week or two until precise patterns of rivers and fields take shape. I experienced very much the same joy and astonishment when I first felt my unborn son move, when I realized that another being had somehow come into existence in the midst of the everyday disorder of my ordinary life. Surely these miracles cannot be, but they are.
Over this winter, I read books about the latest mathematical and scientific discoveries. With the world in its uncertain state, I sought sure, simple, and unchangeable truths. Imagine my astonishment when I discovered that in the thirty years since I studied these subjects in college, the chaos of spring and rebirth has overtaken the orderly and mechanical perspectives of Euclid and Newton.
Chaos theory is, as I understand it, a view that the universe is incomprehensibly complex and its elements are deeply inter-connected. The theory was developed to explain seemingly random occurrences, like a surprise snow squall on a cloudless day. The most famous example is the “butterfly effect” in which the flapping of a butterfly’s wings on one side of the world begins a series of occurrences that lead to a tsunami on the other side.
The theory has been applied to just about everything from the weather to human behavior. By using chaos theory as a new way to look at the world, we can see our actions as the result of uncountable preceding events that have tremendous effect on our own future and on those of others as their consequences reverberate through time and space.
Chaos is not new. In fact, the idea of chaos is ancient and, in many traditions, is envisioned as a woman, or, more precisely, a goddess. In this perspective of old, chaos is not disorder, but is, instead, the primordial great void, the boundless and unformed infinity that existed before creation of the physical world. To the Greeks, chaos was called Gaia, both before and after she formed herself into the Earth, stars, planets, and all that exists. Other cultures had different names for her. In this worldview, it would make sense that the physical manifestation of the spiritual vision of Gaia is a “chaotic” interconnected, complex web of everything that exists because all comes from and ultimately is Gaia.
In the totality of my life thus far, I see myself as a nexus of innumerable past events, most of which I considered to have little importance. Perhaps one line of occurrences started when I was twelve. A book fell off a library shelf into my hands which then sparked my continuing interest in mysticism. This fascination led to more books and, thirteen years later, to a lecture by Merlin Stone, where I was introduced to ancient goddess-centered religions. Another twenty years and hundreds of related events later, Stone’s presentation resulted in my volunteering to help with a women’s spirituality magazine. There I met a woman whose Internet journalism skills brought me to Moondance, which lead to your reading of this column. It is so comforting to think of ourselves and our lives not as isolated fragments, but rather as indispensable elements of a larger, meaningful whole.
For me the deepest experience of chaos is motherhood. My son recently began applying to colleges. This is supposed to be a deterministic, regimented, non-chaotic process of gathering data and sending it off in hopes for acceptance to a school that will increase one’s chances for lifelong material and personal success. As I read his list of achievements and essays about influential people in his life, the unique grown up who my son has become emerged before my eyes.
Suddenly I saw threads of interests and talents that began almost at birth. When pulled together, they define my son and seem to indicate what the next step of his life should be. This never would have happened had we not approached this academic exercise by welcoming the holistic disorder and unexpected delights of chaos.
As the most active mothering phase of my life ends, I must reset my course. At one time I would have this entailed distressing, life-changing transformations. Now I know that I only have to twist slightly in whatever direction catches my fancy to renew my life and maybe even someone else’s. Reading a book with an eye-catching title may cause me to embark on a new career. Buying a fair trade scarf may bring the few dollars needed to a women’s cooperative so that it can finish building a school that might educate a future leader. I am relieved, inspired, and liberated to see that each day’s actions need not be rare and monumental to be profoundly important. I do not have to somehow become a saint or celebrity or best-selling author for my years on Earth to be worthwhile; I can simply be my best self, and that is enough.
Tonight, if the sky is clear, go outside and look at the stars. Feel the ground beneath your feet and contemplate how the soil holds the relics of the years of life on this planet before your birth. Keep your eyes on the stars that will shine on everyone who will come after you. Understand your essential place in the universe is the result of a nearly infinite number of occurrences over billions of years. But also know that you are the contributor of an additional immeasurable number of great things to come. Savor this most precious moment of the universe’s messy, energetic, delightful, and most beautiful chaos, for who knows what it may bring.