So old my kids can’t grasp the antiquity.
So young my mother rolls her eyes at my recent coffin countdown celebration.
Not surprisingly, I’ve been thinking a lot about chaos theory. Oh, admit it . . . when everyone else is glued to the television . . . you’re doing it too.
Thinking. Wondering. What if-ing? 😉
A complete articulation of Chaos Theory, popularly referenced as ‘the butterfly effect’, is beyond the scope of this blog (and yes, I’m laughing with you at the appalling understatement).
The exponentially simplified premise? We can’t predict what we can’t grasp.
Edward Lorenz captured the whimsy of this theory in the title of his 1972 academic paper: ‘Predictability: Does the Flap of a Butterfly’s Wings in Brazil Set off a Tornado in Texas?’ (Affirming rumors of the twisted sense of humor held by academics).
We tend to think in dichotomies – love/hate, good/evil, success/failure. After all, it’s easier to prioritize actions when we have a clear decision point. Then, we categorize effort as neatly as census questions sort people.
Dichotomies are convenient. And frightening for the same reason.
For me, the last five lines of Robert Frost’s 1920 poem, ‘The Road Not Taken’ capture the promise and lament of dichotomy.
“I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged into a wood, and I –
I took the one less traveled by,
and that has made all the difference.”
Welcome to a standard southern Idaho wooded area. Sagebrush is the shrub du jour with pine garnish. Walk with me, on a sun burnt July day, along this dusty road. Seconds ago, a doe stopped, observed us, then turned to pick her way up the hillside into shadows thrown by the scrub aspen.
Within a few yards, and a heartbeat of the doe’s reversal from her daily path to the river, a truck barreled past us with a horse trailer in tow. (You can’t discern the license plate number – I’ve tried).
So many variables. A different outcome but for something we couldn’t possible understand to be significant.
For us. What if the driver spilled coffee? And the truck swerved slightly? He’d have clipped one of us with the side mirror.
For the deer. What if our presence hadn’t redirected her from seeking water? And from the truck’s path?
Can we wrap our intellect around the infinite adjustments in life with sufficient certainty to predict? Chaos theory chides us. How long did you hesitate choosing at the road’s fork? Where did you place your first step? If a butterfly can flap a single wing with far-reaching effect, then surely a cough, a sneeze, even a breath has consequence.
Pessimists consider the implications of choice so overwrought with consequence they are unable to act for fear of a misstep. Optimists see chaos as the foundation of serendipity. Don’t let chaos theory overwhelm you into an immediate retreat to the illusion of safe dichotomy. Embrace serendipity. We are on the cusp of something wonderful. At 29, 39 – or 49.
This picture, snapped by a friend with a cell phone from a crumbling asphalt parking lot in an overcrowded visitor center on the edge of Lake Tahoe, captures the power of chaos.
A limitless vista of small choices leading to grand experiences.Dichotomies might be easier for my feeble human brain, but as a writer, I know the most interesting characters have infinite dimensions. The hero might be a villain but for a single step (or cough, or sneeze, or . . . you get the picture even if it isn’t poetic). I’m not arguing we should neglect taking action, or choosing a path, but sometimes –
When I hear people discuss their writing journey, they say ‘if not for’, ‘this error led me’ or ‘if I hadn’t taken the time to’. Upon reflection, they appreciate even the difficulties en route to cherished moments.
Sitting in my metaphorical kayak, I could look back toward a woman, standing in a parking lot, snapping a picture with her cell phone. Or I could look forward, toward the next (God willing) thirty years.
Even without a clear path, the view is amazing.