Mel Schwartz, LCSW

Order our of Chaos—Embracing Uncertainty

The words, order and chaos, are particularly value laden. We tend to embrace order and avoid chaos at all costs. I’ve come to wonder why that is so. And more to the point, what do we mean by order or chaos? Let’s start by examining what these terms suggest.

The notion of order is equivalent to a sense of predictability. Predictability in this form lets us know what we can expect. It speaks almost of a range of motion. A pendulum, unaffected by friction, will follow its predetermined path. We know just how far it will travel to either point in its arc before beginning its return. Predictability relies upon certainty and measurable outcomes. It has been a major tenet of our culture and our science since Newton introduced the motif of determinism in the 17th century. This range of predictable order is known as equilibrium.

In our lives, order suggests that we know the parameters of our experience, as though the boundaries and limits are determined in advance. The emotional and psychological highs and lows are familiar. The rules of relationship are understood. Knowing the range of our experiences provides a sense of order. As such, order creates a comfort zone as we can be assured of familiar terrain, even if that familiarity doesn’t serve us.

Chaos, on the other hand, suggests an absence of predictability. It triggers the unknown, which for most people is very problematic if not outright daunting. It is a venturing into uncertain territory, far from the familiar zone. Sometimes life’s transitions or crises present chaos in the form of illness, death, divorce, job loss, etc. These events are thrust upon us and we do the best we can to cope with them, aided by family and professional support. Occasionally, we buffer the roller coaster ride through chaos with alcohol, medication and/or therapy.

Sometimes, people seem to slip into personal chaos without any apparent reason. The struggle that ensues may feel like a crisis, as the familiar slips away and we try to avoid plunging into an abyss. But learning to navigate the chaos rather than shutting it down can provide rich rewards. The inclination to flee from chaos and return to order tends to stunt our growth, as it precludes vital new learning and experience. Although personal chaos can be very challenging and often feels threatening, the flip side is that it provides tremendous potential for personal evolution. Learning to accommodate the accompanying disquiet is the desired goal.

In science, what we refer to as order is known as a state of equilibrium, with its accompanying predictability. Yet, there are times when people move far from equilibrium and approach what we might refer to as chaos. In such a state a single small fluctuation can throw the person into chaos. In science this is known as a bifurcation point. This is a fancy term for the point of departure where we head into new territory. This is more commonly referred to as a tipping point.

When Rosa Parks was too tired to give up her seat on the bus to a White man and remained in an area barred to African Americans, a tipping point ensued and the civil rights movement was catalyzed. When systems or organisms, including people, reach such a point, chaos ensues. Yet out of that chaos there is a spiraling up effect, which leads to a new and higher ordering. We move into a transformative process whereby we can evolve more thoroughly. In other words, chaos may lead to a deeper and more evolved state, which then evokes a new and higher order. It’s simply an engaging of process in which we let go of control. Think of this as a spiraling up in complexity, moving up the ladder of intellectual, emotional and spiritual growth.

One difficulty lays in the fact that we live with a cultural imperative (Newtonian mechanistic worldview) that values predictability and shuns if not outright disdains uncertainty, let alone chaos. Yet, without accepting some degree of chaos, our lives become programmed in a deterministic way that precludes growth. A question arose recently in one of my Emergent Thinking ® classes, which addressed this issue: Does personal transformation have to be catalyzed by some measure of crisis or struggle?

After a prolonged discussion we came to an understanding that ordinarily it does. As a therapist, I see my role in such circumstances as not automatically trying to restore order, but assisting as a guide through the chaos toward a new and more evolving experience. This is the new territory that I previously referred to. It’s a terrain of greater complexity and richness. Small or moderate doses of chaos can bring us to higher levels of personal evolution. I’m not speaking of uncontrolled chaos, which is anxiety producing or worse. I’m proposing embracing a reasonable degree of uncertainty as the flow of life presents wonderful opportunities for our enrichment. Chaos is simply a word. We might do well to ask why we are so reactive to it.

To be continued..

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Ali Anani

Hello, Mel
Let me start with a quotation from your splendid article, “Think of this as a spiraling up in complexity, moving up the ladder of intellectual, emotional and spiritual growth”. What a profound statement this is!
I am thinking of predictable outcomes such as weather. It has three axes: X, Y and Z representing three variables. Now, if we substitute the X, Y and Z variables with intellectual. Emotional and spiritual dimensions and the rate of their change we end up with a weather-like system, in which predictability is not possible to any high degree.
I have just published a presentation on the interaction of one dimension that is the emotional one. The presentation offers a new perspective for dealing with emotions. For those readers who might e interested the link is

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