Awake, But Not Terrified: Embracing Chaos in Uncertain Times
This is a good time to talk about chaos and order. Chaos because we’re up to our eyeballs in it. Order because it’s never that far off.
By chaos, I don’t mean an imminent apocalypse due to the results of the U.S. presidential election. I know a lot of people see things that way, but it’s not a vision I share. I mean the chaos of what the election did to many people’s worldview; the chaos of surprise, of mistaken assumptions, of taking things for granted and having them pulled out from under you like the proverbial rug. I mean chaos as professor of psychology Jordan Peterson of the University of Toronto defines it: the disappearance of “the orderly structure that you thought you inhabited, that provided you with security and direction.”
Like most things in life, being plunged into chaos is a physical affair. When the world is upside down, when the unbelievable or unexpected happens, your brain perceives the information as danger signals, sending your body into the emergency state of fight, flight, or freeze. Your muscles tense up, you feel dizzy, your heart pounds, you shake, you sweat, your mouth goes dry, you’re short of breath, you feel nauseous. From what I’ve seen and read over the past few weeks, this describes a fair number of people on the day after the election.
That first wave of response is not really something you can control; in fact, you shouldn’t try to, as it means that your body is functioning properly to get you out of harm’s way. The problem arises when you stay in fight/flight/freeze, which the body is built to endure for only a short period of time – just long enough to deal with an immediate threat to your life. Beyond that, you’re living in a state of anxiety which, when stretched out over time, will stress and weaken you and become increasingly difficult to get out of.
To bring yourself down from the ledge of fight/flight/freeze:
- Ask yourself if there is an immediate threat to your survival. If the answer is no, agree to let go of the state you’re in. The idea is not to calm down or “normalize”; the idea is to not be overwhelmed or in lock-down.
- Observe your posture and muscle tension. Hunching forward or sticking chest and ribs way out are common reactions in fight/flight/freeze, so feel your back and stretch your spine. If you’re rounding your back, bring the area just below your shoulder blades slightly forward and open your chest; if you’re pushing forward, relax your spine and ribs back into line. Check your shoulders, forehead, jaws, and stomach for tense muscles, and release them.
- Breathe consciously and slowly, even for a short time. Inhale as you count to 4, exhale as you count to 4, then raise the count to 5, or more. Or inhale for 4 and exhale for double that. Or inhale fully and exhale through pursed lips, as if you’re blowing out a candle. Any of these methods will stimulate your parasympathetic nervous system, steady your heart rate, lower your blood pressure, and help you think more clearly.
And then you walk straight into the arms of chaos. You’ve brought yourself out of lockdown, but you still need to face what put you there in the first place. Agree to be in chaos, to not know, to be lost. Come fully into the uncharted waters of what you didn’t believe or expect, of what you don’t understand, of what you don’t want. You don’t have to stay there, but you do need to come through that place. Otherwise you are trapped on the island of your ideology and worldview; wading into chaos is the only way off the island. And since chaos, along with order, is one of the governing principles of the world you inhabit, you will probably have to wade through it many times in your lifetime. Take heart: both of these principles exist within you and in your surroundings. Things are both much less controllable, and much better ordered, than you imagine.
The chaotic heart
We tend to think a normal heartbeat is regular, like clockwork; it is, in fact, naturally erratic, as the sympathetic and parasympathetic systems send it competing signals. Heart rate is also affected by respiratory rhythm: increasing your inhalation, for example, will increase your heart rate. For these and other reasons, the heart can be called a chaotic system. And that’s a good thing. Cardiac variation means the heart avoids repetition, and therefore fatigue, and is better equipped to deal with changing demands.
Chaos is also essential to normal brain functioning. The random firing of inactive neurons keeps them from dying off. Without chaos, cognition and perception would be extremely slow.
Scientists even cite a lack of chaos, called “abnormal periodic order,” as the cause of diseases such as leukemia, heart attacks, and epileptic seizures. This happens when neurons at a “trouble spot” entice other neurons to fire in sync with them. If too many fire all at once – too much order – a seizure or heart attack is produced.
“Our entire bodies are a complex, dynamic system,” writes Crystal Ives of the Physics Department at Oregon State University. “Our physiology, like so much in nature, takes on fractal dimensions. We are creatures of chaos.”
Communication, influence, and order
Chaos is only half of the equation. Order is also a fact of life, and, like its opposite, it can be found occurring spontaneously within us and in the universe. According to mathematician Steven Strogatz, an expert in the field of synchrony, phenomena at all levels of existence tend to synchronize their rhythmic features “almost as if nature has an eerie yearning for order.” This unconscious order appears in murmurations of starlings, the simultaneous flashing of fireflies, the paths of planets as they orbit in space, and the firing of specific cells in our hearts. This natural, unchoreographed group movement or action is possible when a physical or chemical process allows the individuals in a group to influence each other.
Starlings are a particularly appropriate metaphor here: an entire flock is able to perform intricate speed and directional changes en masse, almost simultaneously, because the behavioral changes of each individual affect and are affected by the others in the group. A 2012 study showed that one bird’s movement affects its seven closest neighbors; each of those birds in turn affects the seven birds closest to it, and so on. This kind of order is not planned and cannot be forced; it comes from each individual doing what’s necessary for itself – swooping away from a predator, for example.
I think one of the hard reminders of the period we’re living through right now is that in our existence, within and without, chaos and order interact, so we’d better learn to move with them – both of them – rather than against them. To cling to one and avoid the other is a recipe for a miserable life, and a bad strategy for survival. Yes, Trump won the election. Yes, Marine LePen’s numbers are up. Yes, entire populations are being displaced and the world doesn’t seem to know how to handle them. Yes, here it is, something unrecognizable, the rug pulled out, the world on its head. Well here we are. And what will we do with it? Where might it bring us? What might it awaken us to? When the flock has dipped and dived in its wave of panic and fallen back in together, as it will — what shape might it have?
“The things that terrify you contain things of value,” says Jordan Peterson.
Be confident that you can find your way. Confident, but not slavishly secure; awake, but not terrified.
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