We all love a good story. A typical novel or short story’s structure can be comforting and reassuring to the reader. It offers constancy and predictability to things when we pick up a book, a magazine, or peruse them from our laptops or tablets. Most stories focus on their respective settings, characters, narratives, and plot lines. And, of course, on the overarching theme: the thing we’re supposed to figure out as a result of our reading. The big ‘take-away’, if you will. Even the story, itself, usually progresses in a predictable way. Things conclude, however nicely or not, in a resolution. Or as some call it, the ‘denouement’ of the story. At times, the end is a surprise. At others, it leaves us sad. Sometimes we’re even left to guess. Whatever the story’s content, though, the basic structure is pretty predictable from story-to-story.
Many of us look at our own lives as this kind of a story. The same goes for the lives of our families. Of our friends. Our co-workers. Even strangers. And we want these ‘stories’ to have predictability. Life needs to progress in an orderly fashion. Like a book. With a structure. A framework of sorts. And when it no longer does so, we don’t like it very much. For painting on a blank canvas is frightening. Even more so when the canvas seems to independently and erratically move around while we’re trying to brush our paint on it. In truth, it feels downright chaotic.
Chaos is the opposite of predictability. It’s a moving human story without structure. Chaos is what we typically try hardest to avoid. Or battle against. What we regard as existentially ‘unsafe’ for us. Because it feels like trying to wrestle a greased pig to the ground. Feels like trying to swat at a fly that keeps darting away from us whenever we get close to it on the wall or a window. If we were to give chaos a literary term, we might call it Poetry. Now, for most of us, poetry was required reading when we were in school. Many of us had to write a few along the way, as well. Perhaps we gravitated toward ‘order’ even here, as we tended in the direction of structured lines such as, “Roses are Red, Violets are Blue…” For I’d rather have structure, and I’ll bet you do too! See… it rhymes. Nice orderly flow to it, as well.
But more creative, fluid poetry can teach us something about chaos and change if we’re willing to engage with it openly and more spiritually. And drop the “Roses are Red…” routine. Poetry can be beautiful chaos, in fact. A bit of literary chaos that can soften our own edges. It can open us to creativity. It can get us out of our rut and our need for safety and structure. This is precisely because poetry doesn’t need the kind of order that most stories require. Poetry doesn’t need to have a genre. We don’t have to characterize poems by ‘headers’ such as fiction and non-fiction. We need not label a poem as a mystery, a thriller, an adventure, a romance piece, or as sci-fi.
Poems don’t need a large cast of characters, either. In fact, they can work just fine with only one: you as writer or you as reader. Actually, poems don’t even need complete sentences. They don’t have to rhyme, despite your deep, abiding urge to ‘force things’ in this way. Great poems don’t need a plot or a logical sequence or flow to them. Don’t require a narrative to follow, for that matter. For a poem’s symbolism can be far more important than any literal meaning that might spin off in the reading.
This is because the beauty of pure creative imagination or reverie can be far more meaningful than a story line. A poem’s expressed fears, hopes, and dreams are often profoundly more critical than any outcomes or resolution that it could ever bring. In short, the relative ‘chaos’ is one of poetry’s best characteristics. It gives a good poem real, unbounded heart and soul. But what does poetry’s chaos have to do with our human spirituality and lives? Let’s look at some ways that our own experienced chaos parallels a good poem.
For one, life (like a creative, spontaneous poem) can be impulsive. The universe seems to act on its own volition at times. Without logic. Or warning. Or even direction or purpose. In fact, the people around us don’t seem to follow the accepted rules at certain points. The natural laws of cause and effect appear to unravel. Things don’t follow our commands. Or anyone’s for that matter. It feels like logic and reason have been tossed out the window. Even facts and information are jumbled. Past behaviors and coping mechanisms don’t work anymore. It’s a total short-circuit. Everything’s gone haywire.
If that’s not enough, the comforting, soothing inter-dependency of people and things appears to have torn away. We can’t seem to negotiate the chaos around us, no matter how hard we try. No matter how good we are at it. Furthermore, the normal reciprocity of things is gone. Everything and everyone looks uncaringly toward us. The world has morphed into an impersonal, autonomous mess. We can even feel as if we’ve lost our place and identity in things. Like a starving poet with a bad case of writer’s block, we’ve become ‘author-less’.
Finally and perhaps most importantly, though, chaos resists our efforts to give some perspective to it. For the seeming chaos in our lives gives us little to hold onto. The very nature of chaotic change makes it nearly impossible to understand or adapt to it. It’s brutally difficult to integrate it into our soul. Because it’s so diffused and rapidly changing in its own chaotic ‘soul’. Somewhat like an improvisational, offbeat, way-out-there poem that makes no sense at all to us.
As challenging as chaos can seem in our lives, though, we can count on it always being there. So, in our respective quests, we must become better ‘poets’. It goes without saying that the truest nature of life is the need to live with the many great mysteries of our universe. But how do we do this when we’re left with unanswered, difficult questions? As holistically and inclusive spiritual people, we do so by trusting the Character of God, not judging God for the specific actions that God seems to be causing. For God may not be the author of these actions at all. That said, it’s possible that God has introduced randomness and uncertainty into the universe and our world. But, fortunately, God has also given us something, in love, to deal with it.
We’ve been given what we most need to ‘write poetry’ amidst the chaos in our lives: Capacity. God has gifted us the capacity to move around in and grow from the chaos. The capacity to truly understand and accept our mortality and our impermanence in the grand scheme of things. The capacity to know that we control very little, actually. That we influence only a little more. We’re given the capacity to grasp the important difference between influence and control. We’re also gifted with the capacity to let go of that which we can neither control nor influence. To make what sense of things that we can. Then to accept the senselessness of that which we cannot.
It’s possible that the greatest gift we have is our capacity to find personal wellbeing within the chaos around us. And, like any great poet, to move within the rhythm and motion of the untidiness of it all. To find our way when our maps and our compasses are no longer helpful. To find rest and restoration through contemplation, meditation, and prayer. And to allow potential ‘truths’ in multiple, unpredictable, and unplanned narratives in our lives—however seemingly competitive and contradictory on the surface.
Like a good poet, our job is to keep writing in the midst of the chaos. To continue looking for ‘openings’ in this life. For possibilities. For different narratives, particularly when they make no sense at the moment. That’s because the greatest sense of the seemingly senseless is a sense of adventure. Poetic Adventure. Sometimes without rhyme or reason. Without rhythm or flow. Without structure or verse. Without even the “Roses are Red…” stuff. So try this instead: “Violets are Purple…” Beautifully and unpredictably purple, not blue. We’re not blue either. So write on, everyone… Write on.
Excerpt from my latest book, Unbinding the Perpetual Soul: Our Human Quest for Being, Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2018