Chaotic Systems: Coping with Capriciousness

Since the summer blockbuster season is bearing down upon us, I thought I’d get into the spirit of things with this post. Taking refuge in the cool of a darkened theater, munching on deliciously greasy popcorn while escaping the unrelenting heat of a summer’s afternoon, few things can be more entertaining than watching the world fall apart before our very eyes. Hey, if they can successfully parachute a fleet of cars from the back of a cargo plane in Furious 7, anything is possible. A few weeks ago, the Washington Post had an article about the Yellowstone caldera. Apparently one of the world’s largest volcanoes, it was studied by a team of scientists who estimate that were it to blow (which it does about every 640,000 years), the destruction would be on a scale never before seen by humans. All of this is dramatic and very exciting to consider, but what really caught my attention was the following quote: “Geological processes don’t follow clocks. These are chaotic systems, with strain building unpredictably as distant faults break and the geological stresses shift here and there.”

For me, this sentence encapsulates a lot of what goes on in our lives. There is much about the human experience that is seemingly illogical and unpredictable; in fact, we ourselves exist within chaotic systems, with many aspects to our lives that cannot be predicted or controlled. Most of these aspects involve the actions of others, but our own evolution as individuals render us equally vulnerable. We can’t always predict our own motivations or shifts in perspective, let alone theirs. And then, BOOM! move over Krakatoa. Our personal tectonic plates shift under continual pressure, a personal continental drift, if you will. Of course, as the Yellowstone scientists reported, there are always signs of strain that hint at such movement. (A less dramatic analogy might be the annoying, unrelenting chirp of my carbon monoxide alarm which is too high for me to reach easily. It just beeps away in the background, alerting me to matters that require attention.) The thing about chaotic systems is that they’re unpredictable, and, as the article stated, “Risk assessment is tricky for low-probability, high-consequence events…”

Let’s think about that phrasing for a moment: low-probability, high consequence events. Now, I’m not talking about disaster films here; I’m alluding to issues you already know exist in your life, the ones you’d prefer not to think about. The really inconvenient ones. What issues might those be? What annoying carbon monoxide alarms contribute to your own sense of chaos?

The beauty of the re-booting concept is that it plays out on all strata of life, from the most mundane of exchanges between two people to enormous, life altering transformation. We all must cope with this instability, whether the signs are barely perceptible tremors or culminate in a total upheaval of how we live. Examples could be anything such as getting older, job loss, illness or addiction issues, relationship change, or even unexpected success. Any of these conversions from who we were to who we are (let alone those of others) will upset the equilibrium, forcing us to redefine what happens next in light of these new circumstances. Expecting our lives to move forward on a smooth, predictable trajectory is as delusional as expressing shock when a smoking volcano blows. Re-booting is about regrouping, about establishing a new normal, about training ourselves to become more aware of the minor tremors that make themselves felt. The wisest among us learn to watch for signs of internal magma pooling below.

What I have seen over and over in life is that the reason people fail to recover from loss or change is their inability to adapt. Their subsequent suffering ties directly into their fixed definition of who they are and what their lives must look like. In happy contrast, I have also seen people who have found much greater happiness and a sense of fulfillment living lives that took an unexpected turn or two, sending them on a paths they would never have imagined. “I didn’t realize life could be like this,” they say. “And, as hard as it was to go through [whatever], I’m so much happier now.”

Can you think of a time you felt something similar? What was it about that time that made such a difference? Is there a way for you to apply some of what you did back then to whatever it is that’s holding you back now?

The fact of the matter is, the plates of our lives are ever shifting (which, actually, to me makes life far more interesting—note that I didn’t say easy; I said interesting). Some things we can control, some we cannot. Sometimes we’ll be the one to screw up, to stumble, to hurt those we care about, but not always. And, we sure as hell can’t control the reactions (and overreactions) of others from our missteps—that’s their responsibility. Forgiveness, patience, flexibility, and a generous dollop of benefit of the doubt are all strategies we can use to ride out these waves.

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