It was only one day after listening to an episode of Hidden Brain that my husband and I discovered "Why Disorder Might Be Good for Us.” In the podcast, Shankar Vedantam interviews author and economist, Tim Harford. Harford contends that when we embrace chaos, we become better problem solvers. Chaos and disorder force us to be more alert and open to new possibilities. In his book, Messy: The Power of Disorder to Transform Our Lives, Harford illustrates his point with examples from the lives of creative individuals. Chaos or mishap led to the creation of lauded pieces of music, memorable speeches, and innovative solutions. After our quiet weekend, John and I were intrigued by this notion. However, we did not realize that the very next day…chaos would literally enter our front door and put us to the test.
It is our custom to walk together most mornings. On the days that I work, we head out of the house at 5:30 sharp and this particular morning was no different. However, as I went out of the door I left the key in the deadbolt for John to retrieve behind me. He stepped out on the porch, pulled the door to, and asked, “You’ve got the key, right?” I said, “No it’s in the deadbolt.” The lower lock on the door knob has not worked in over a year, so John turned the faulty knob to retrieve the key from the deadbolt, but the door was locked! Neither one of us said a word as the realization of the early hour, lack of a cell phone, and the ramifications of being locked out on a busy work day sunk in.
It would have been easy to find fault with each other, but we seemed to simultaneously recognize the folly in that tactic. So we began to embrace the chaos and explore our possibilities. We decided to go ahead and walk since the probability of finding a neighbor up at that dark hour was remote. On the walk, we each came up with a different solution. John was convinced that a front bedroom window was unlatched. It would be an easy climb via the porch roof once it was daylight. I knew all the front windows were latched so I suggested we try spraying WD-40 into the keyhole and wiggle the malfunctioning lock into submission. John doubted my premise, but upon our return home he offhandedly gave me the can of WD-40 as he headed for the ladder. As it turned out and is often the case in most marriages…we were both right AND wrong. The front window was unlatched as John presumed. However, before John climbed the ladder to discover my error, I was able to wiggle the lock open and get us in. Happily, we both got to work on time.
Emboldened by our early morning success at embracing chaos, we made a last minute decision that evening to have our house insulated and take advantage of an expiring energy tax credit. It all sounded doable until the company representative told us we had to remove all the items from our attic before the scheduled appointment the following day. While I began clearing out our attic years ago, there was still an odd assortment of memorabilia, furniture, and detritus left behind by our adult children. Happily, the young man who bid the job stayed to help...hauling down the cumbersome Christmas tree, two mattresses, chairs from my grandparent’s house, and several boxes of trophies and college notes.
After the young man left with our profuse thanks, I stood in our once tidy living room surrounded by bits of snowy insulation and dusty boxes. Hungry and tired, I found it difficult to embrace the chaos. There was no creative solution to be found. All we needed was perseverance to organize and sort out the mess. Finally, after a late dinner and much needed showers, we knew what was going where without too much debate. We managed to embrace the chaos with simple determination.
The next day as I drove to Goodwill and the recycling center, I thought of all the people who face chaotic events far more daunting than ours. I thought especially of one dear friend whose newly built home outside of Houston was filling with water. I do not know how I would fare in similar circumstances. Yet, I now understand that chaos, bad luck, or misfortune does have the potential to wake us up to gratitude. It sneaks in and forces us to reorder our priorities. It pulls all the people in our lives to the top of our list and shifts our things to the bottom. In other words, the “who” takes precedent over the “what” in our personal hierarchies.
A few days ago, I challenged myself to memorize Mary Oliver’s poem, “Wild Geese.” As I look more deeply at the last lines and ponder her words, I wonder now if this reordering we do in the face of chaos is what she meant when she wrote…
the world calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting-
over and over again so that you might know your place
in the family of things
Perhaps chaos calls us too…calls us to awaken, chart a new course, or simply find our proper place in this wild but wonderful world we live in. ~c.h.
Oliver, Mary. “Wild Geese.” Dream Work. Atlantic Monthly Press. 1986