The space between Chaos and Control:
"Beauty is mysterious as well as terrible. God and the devil are fighting there, and the battlefield is the heart of man."
-- Fyodor Dostoevsky
Last night, I was playing a solo set in a club just outside of Cincinnati. We were nearing the end of the night when, all of a sudden, the lights went out. It was odd; we didn't lose power to the microphones or the PA, but somehow the lighting console had crashed. In that uncertain moment something beautiful happened: The entire crowd began to light the stage with cell phones and cigarette lighters. It was truly magic -- a crowd of strangers knit together in a moment of pure, spontaneous beauty. An unplanned instant of joy born out of chaos.
As we sang together in the dark, I began to think about chaos and control. I closed my eyes and remembered the beauty of letting go. This incredible, brilliant flash of joy and transcendence had broken our plans and something far better was born. Have you ever felt the unexpected like that? When your heart beats faster, your lungs tighten, and you brace yourself for the unexpected. Then involuntarily, you begin to smile without knowing that you're smiling, surprised by the dance within the disorder. Well I was smiling like that, singing in the dark with my eyes closed when suddenly, the lights came back on. Like waking from a dream, the connected feeling disappeared. I joked that we should turn 'em back off again, but it's impossible to return to those moments. The moment was gone, but it's a memory I won't forget -- a song crafted from the chaos.
Why are we so afraid of these disruptions? Most of our lives are spent pushing back against the chaos. We make laws, we make our plans, we make backup plans. We fight entropy the best we can. But I get the feeling sometimes that I don't have as much control as I'd like to think. And maybe that's a good thing. "In chaos, there is fertility," says Anaïs Nin. In the darkness of the unknown, that's where the idea, the song, the faith, the art is conceived. Before we give her structure, or name her - in the mysterious, terrible beauty of the unknown. Hovering over the waters, somewhere between chaos and control, the beauty is born. But isn't this terrifying space where we are born, as well? In spite of our best efforts to control the universe, these beautiful moments of wonder and fear bring us back to our senses. Aren't beauty and pain always breaking through these futile, human regulations? We've seen it with our own eyes -- these flowers (ever so small!) fighting their way through the cracks in the pavement of our man-made control. Yes, and birds singing songs that I could never master or predict. For him who's got ears, let him hear.
Beauty is the battlefield for God and the devil... fear vs. faith. But how could it be otherwise? This chaotic, beautiful, terrifying place is where art happens. This is where humanity happens. On the day you were born, your body emerged from your mother's womb and took captive a small part of the planet. Your skin and bones fought hard to occupy this space -- pushing, reaching, yearning for life. And on the day you were born, you became the beginning of what is possible. You are a dream come true, an imagination in physical form. You are the embodiment of what is possible. Your thoughts, your words, your songs, your paintings -- these works bring your personal soul to life. They call that which isn't into existence.
Your world is not fixed or set in stone. And neither is mine. You and I, we are creators of reality. You set your mental landscape to darkness or light. The universe behind your eyes says, "Let there be" and there was. You are powerful beyond what you've ever dreamed possible. And yet, in the same fragile breath, you are helpless. You live in the unknown, where nothing is promised to you -- nothing is certain. Your hopes, your dreams, even your life itself will be taken from you someday. It is in this beautiful, terrible mystery where our story takes place. I dance with my daughter in my arms, explosions echo in the streets of Palestine, and an earthquake erupts north of India. This is the messy canvas of our existence -- the chaotic battlefield where our journeys take place.
Think of a tree reaching to the sky. She stretches out her arms and takes hold of the space above her. She becomes bigger to occupy the sky that once was looking down on her. It is hers for the taking -- for the dreaming, for the hoping. The composer creates a world that wasn't there before. The artist begins to add color to the canvas -- where there was once only negative space -- and a painting appears. A thought forms in your mind. The thought grows into a city with families and houses, plumbing and sidewalks and electrical lines. All of this fiction may one day be fact. The dreaming is the inception of tomorrow. This middle ground is where art happens: between who you are and who you could be.
Against the backdrop of our own creation, chaos isn't always welcomed. But it's crucial to our story -- it is the interrupter of the established, clearing the way for new possibilities. Entropy destroys our plans and forces us out of our comfort zone. We admit our lack of control and suddenly strange new worlds become possible. This surrender doesn't come easy, however. Chaos is the destructor, Entropy, Shiva, discord, anarchy -- whatever you call her, she is rarely appreciated in the moment. Yes, she may clear a path for new ideas, but in doing so she often shatters our comfortable plans. "Chaos was the law of nature; Order was the dream of man," writes Henry Adams. We organize colors and words- - we dream up a new painting, a new song. We build our stories out of the materials we see around us. Ironically, these dreams born of present chaos build cities of future order -- waiting to be overturned by chaos once more. And when our world is turned upside down we begin again -- creating order anew.
Right now I am stranded in Dallas because our pilot showed up an hour and a half late (I know, this is a minor thing compared to the wars and genocides and volcanoes and earthquakes, but I really wanted to see my daughter tonight). So when the airline representative told us that the hotel rooms had all been taken and that she would try to find us a few cots to sleep on, I had to laugh. Here I am writing about "appreciating chaos," but putting it into practice can be a different story. And yet when everyone behind me in line began to yell and fight and argue with the gate agent about what is fair, I had to walk away. None of their actions were making our situation any better. If anything, their attitude and anger was only making our situation even more miserable.
This is where choice comes in... do we make the best out of a bad situation or do we make a bad situation worse? Yes, we all get angry, frustrated, bitter, and depressed about the things in our lives that go wrong. But when we're at our best, we refuse to land there. Most of this world is not in my control - the sooner I accept that fact, the better. "The friend who can be silent with us in a moment of despair... who can tolerate not knowing, not curing, not healing and face with us the reality of our powerlessness, that is a friend who cares," says Henri Nouwen. There's humility in the face of the unknown. The place where you announce your limitations is where growth begins. By accepting the truth of my own shortcomings and my inability to control, I am also able to begin to understand the truth: that I (though godlike in my ability to create and plan, build and destroy!) am not God. I am, however, free to respond to the world around me. Free to create with creation herself. I take off my shoes in reverence -- this chaotic space is holy ground.
In the humility of wonder I begin to hear a song in the discord. In this terrifying middle ground between what I know and what I don't know, I unclench my fists and surrender. I find myself stretched tight between power and powerlessness, between what is and what will be. Like a guitar string that can only sing when it's put under tension -- that's where the best of all of us is born. Our journey of life is a narrow river that runs between the mountains of chaos and control, predestination and freewill. I force myself to let go of the reeds on the side of the river and flow in the space between the dream and the action, between what I control and what I don't. This is where life happens -- where relationships rise and fall, where empires succeed or meet their demise. These are the deep waters: the glorious terrible space between the mirage and the facts, between waking and the dream. This is where we live, and where our song is born. Somewhere between chaos and the control -- these are the wonderlands.