December unfurls and with it an advent of events, shopping, stress, and school. The frenzy carries excitement and consternation and messes of decoration and mind. Then there’s the matter of wrapping gifts; at AU we all probably have a study desk, a more comfortable clime for wrapping parcels than the floor. This could lead us to seeing our desk’s messy countenance in a new light. The mess can trigger more mental stress. What if, Christmas being the season of miracles and all, chaos has the potential for epiphany.
Our desk can be where the magic happens, but it also carries invisible scars from where our tears congealed and a lingering sense of unfinished business. Our desk’s a work space that concatenates all of our academic worries and intellectual concerns into a landscape of possibility and hope, compliance and contrivance, and, unlike elementary school, when at any moment a teacher might come along and dump out our desk content to make an example of our messiness to the others – our desk is a space of autonomy. So what do we make of the mess that we see, is it the mess that we are?
(For those whose desk remains as pristine and organized as the day we first sat down at it we can ask the inverse question, what does our studious fastidiousness say about us, and the person that we are? Maybe chaos is like a tunnel to enlightenment!
For the ancient Greeks Chaos was a word that referred literally to a “gap or chasm”, not necessarily the void contained within ominous edges – like a sinkhole that swallows up a tree, it’s the ground that gives way that matters as much or more than the space it creates. They named a deity after the word khaos and their tradition (discussed by Martin Heidegger and Jacques Derrida) of seeking an unveiling of meaning within the world of appearances was later personified by the works of Plato. His ‘Allegory of the Cave’ is a classic example; within the confines of a cave, within those crucial walls, enlightenment becomes possible – only by leaving the cave does a person come to see reality for what it is, implying that the claustrophobia of the cave’s boundaries is the nature of chaos but, as with the deity, enlightenment is the result of such immurement.
Chaos a great topic (covered by Derrida, Heidegger etc) in terms of understanding the mindset of the ancient Greeks and by extension the misunderstandings that may be core to our modern worldviews and belief systems. Chaos is an opening, an unveiling, behind which the unknown emerges—the edges matter. Order is thus not the opposite of chaos but the possible outcome of chaotic or incomprehensible surroundings. We tend to assume, academically or at a therapist, that salvation will include the attainment of order, yet it’s quite possible that only with chaos can we arrive at a knowable state of serenity. No pain, no gain didn’t become such a cliché for nothing, right? So instead of privileging order and seeking to quell chaos we can see the creativity implicit in disorder; it’s like borrowing a book from a friend, if the pages aren’t ruffled or the margins marked we can well assume (though not always) that the book has never been read. We have to be ruffled, scattered, stimulated out of our normal comfort zone, if we are to truly learn and grow. Entering new course material with the attitude that we already know everything isn’t just arrogant and counter-productive, it ensures that we’ll merely stay in our echo chamber like a denizen of social media who throws the same memes around year after year.
Chaos, as we normally understand it, matches belief systems in our culture; we expect a binary between chaos and order, with the latter coming at the expense of the former. The arc of the narrative in fiction or the steadfast search for truth within the sciences both yield pat conclusions and certain assertions. Yet, the process of getting there implies the very nature of the universe so why cling to a desire for absolution from ambiguity? Instead, it helps to be at peace with the process. A diploma is a reward to be sure but it’s also akin to being rock bottom in a hole or chasm – the learning along the way is what we truly take into our future. The journey, in all its struggle and tears and joys, is a lingering precipice that is the fulcrum or foundry of our emergence into enlightenment. In this sense, what triggers a sense of chaos is seeing the whole we’re heading towards – and when we get there we are relieved beyond words, very much like finishing an essay and then laughing at the mess of papers and notes we’ve left in our wake.
Paper cuts and disorganized thoughts aren’t the only instances of chaos leading to epiphany. BC ecologist Don Gayton describes a favourite climbing tree of his childhood, and how an unfortunate fall left him clamoring for a closer embrace with the wonder of nature. “Unconscious for a few seconds, I opened my eyes to the sunlit and radiant tree canopy. I was mildly interested in what had just happened, but totally overwhelmed by the beauty of the infinitely complex mosaic above me: a mass of delicate pinnate leaves shot through with light. That may have been a transformative moment.” (14). Note here how many of us looking up into tree branches might see a chaotic mass of growth going in all directions – it can take a chaotic shaking up to reveal beauty. For Gayton a calamitous and chaotic circumstance (landing after falling out of a tree if nothing else induces a chaotic conscious condition) unveils to the participant(s) possibilities for a whole new sense of reality whenever things get hairy. Gayton’s account gives pause to those who tend to see science as a series of eggheads in service of industries and nerdiness; instead, the reader grasps a vocational essence at the core of the scientific project of making sense of the world. (That the senses are core to science, rather than our rational mind alone is a matter for another day).
This discovery of meaning out of chaos has philosophical echoes everywhere; recently while channel-flipping (a quaint but occasionally productive enterprise) a Rabbi was imploring viewers to remember that, Biblically, “chaos always leads to salvation” as God intercedes to aid loyal adherents (Shapira, online). Typically one might figure that chaos can as easily lead to destruction as it can to any sense of closure or some kind of solution – I’d not thought that anyone thought that chaos was in itself much of a good thing. Elsewhere Chinese Taoism finds metaphoric value contained within the edges of an abyss or a crevice: Lao Tzu counsels readers to that see divinity connected to the deepest recesses of the earth.
“He who knows the masculine but keeps to the feminine,
Becomes the ravine of the world.
Being the ravine of the world,
He dwells in constant virtue,
He returns to the state of the babe.
He who knows the white but keeps to the black,
Becomes the model of the world.
Being the model of the world,
He rests in constant virtue,
He returns to the infinite.
He who knows glory but keeps to disgrace,
Becomes the valley of the world.
Being the valley of the world,
He finds contentment in constant virtue,
He returns to the Uncarved Block.”
Circling the Square of Chaos and Enlightenment
Out of a messy situation, in life or our studies, inspiration and epiphany can arise. From the messiest of notebooks a few jewels may emerge and a diamond in the rough becomes, with labour, a glistening jewel – think of all the Christmas mornings where the frenzy and stress of a couple’s home life is transformed by the deployment of an engagement ring! Chaos appears not as a void but as the edges of the abyss, as a portal to new awakenings – crucially, the literal meaning of the word in Greek implies that the edges of a gap in order may sometimes matter most.
In our studies the learning we gain is not in spite of our chaotic surroundings but as a product of those surroundings. It’s the struggle that matters most, the messy world of learning. What makes distance education so special is that we embark on this journey within the slipstream of our life in the world. Where others are sequestered and institutionalized on campuses we get to rustle through the weeds of learning and maybe, just maybe, gain unique intellectual traction through the combination of learning and life, studying and evolving. So be it the holiday hurries or deadline delirium let’s recall that chaos is not an end-all but a virtuous means to a happy ending.