The third essay in our series is not for the feint of heart. We will exit the world of theory and enter the world of humanity. We have learned about chaos theory via its descriptive terms and we will continue to do so. We have meandered through the woods of Jungian Shamanism and we will continue that endeavor also.
What we will attempt in this essay is to pull all of it together into a story, a real live tale of human connectedness, love, AND blessing or bane, depending on how one views it. The trickster of chaos takes us to the front of the class and invites us to start writing on the board even when we don’t know what the answer is. He’s that bold and innovative.
Within chaos theory is the term ‘irrationality’ most famously represented by the numeral “pi” —a number that has no end. This never-ending numeral reveals the randomness within chaos—no pattern comes to the fore to stay chaos and the natural infinity that swirls around it. Chaos is tireless in its lack of internal order. There is no definitive explanation that will simplify the complexity of a number that never ends.
“That’s crazy!” you say. Yes, it is. Humans look for pattern, we look for answers, and we look for understanding to make sense of those events, thoughts, feelings, and mysteries that we cannot, or will not, accept. We strive for order to undo the chaos. We strive for limits to the limitless. We want to clip the wings that (paradoxically) allow us to fly. Simplicity is what we want. “Just tell me what’s goin’ on here.”
Let’s slow the talk of chaos for a moment to catch our breath. Reprieve comes from the chaotic nature of talking about chaos if we return to the finite by putting a beginning to our ending story. Very few can staunch the pressured flow that chaos evokes unless we breathe in a bit of organization and self-regulation.
Bears will introduce us to as probable a beginning as any in a story that has no beginning. I don’t mean to sound enigmatic by saying, “A story that has no beginning” but it’s true. This universal story of pain, deceit, and redemption is ongoing. The story touches all of us although the manner in which it is dressed is mine alone. Rather than a myth, the telling of my tale begins with a vision, and visions, regardless of the cloth they are draped in, are universal. They are for everyone.
I was asked to be the bearer of a dream. “Who will dream for the South direction?” the Shaman asked as twenty some women sat in a lodge circle at a ranch in Montana for a week of Shamanic exploration. “I will!” I raised my hand eager to put my dreaming skills into practice for the benefit of the group. At the time, I had little recognition that the dream was a vision that would direct my life for the next twenty years right up to the moment of penning this essay. I also had no idea that the vision was about chaos. Visions, including chaotic ones, inspire, provide conscious guidance and ignite the heart and soul.
Early the following morning, I roused myself inside the down comforter I was wrapped in for warmth. Whoa! These Montana Rockies were cold! Where was that dream? The dream that I would be sharing shortly with all the other women, had yet to arrive. I rolled over, away from the dawn light coming in the window, and covered my head with the comforter. I had forty-five minutes left to sleep. Suddenly, the vision arrived with little preamble.
A bear rose on its hind legs before me. The bear was bigger than I would ever have imagined it could be, but I had little fear. The bear’s arms were raised high above its head although it was not for the purpose of charging me. The bear simply stood facing me. The brown bear’s chest was covered in bright blood from claw marks inflicted upon it by another bear.
The second image was of bear droppings. I looked down at the forest path I found myself on and there was a pile of scat in the middle of the path. Odd that it had bright red berries mingling with the scat itself. I wondered at the brightness of the red berries. Had I ever seen bear scat before? Not to my remembrance.
A third image arose from the depths of my unconscious, or from the dream realm, whichever location most appeals to you as you read the vision. The image was of a gently flowing river—not just any river, either. The river was as broad as the Mississippi. I could faintly see the river’s edge on the opposite side from where I stood. Except that the river wasn’t river blue or muddy brown in color. It was blood red. Yep. The broad flow of water was the color red.
Three distinct images had appeared, one after the other. No bridge connected the three images; there were no links to provide any sort of plot or sequencing as an explanation for the three images arriving together. Visions are usually brief and with minimal explanation, much like a koan. There was a surprising lack of fear and disgust at seeing the first two images. I was curious though. All three images were emblazoned on my retina, (another signpost to a vision)—and there they have remained for nearly twenty years.
Let’s think back on our brief foray into Jungian psychology. It is here that a portion of the interpretation comes. As a symbol we’ve been tracking the bear. We’ve seen the “humanness” of bears and the “bearness” of humans. Now we move into Bear as the symbol for the alma mater, or Great Mother.
A Jungian Shaman approached my vision with tempered satisfaction; it is standard Jungian faire that our parents are the bearers of both pain and pleasure. “Bear stands for the Mother Complex. What was your relationship like with your mother?” As a psychotherapist I had done plenty of exploration into my childhood. There was no longer a need to point a finger of blame on whatever inadequacies I perceived to have received from my parents.
But the Jungian shaman went in a direction I’d never considered.
“The purpose of the mother is to be ‘just right’; neither hot nor cold, good nor evil, black nor white. (Sound like a familiar character searching for food, comfort and rest?) Every parent travels a continuum on which they balance the negative and the positive; it’s called parenting. The vision is telling you that there’s been enough emotional pain between you and your mother to cause a wound that bleeds.
Now look here: scat appears. Our bodies naturally eliminate what no longer has value for us. In the midst of the bear droppings, there are bright red berries. There is joiussance here, a pleasure amidst the natural letting go of what no longer provides us with physical sustenance. Better than constipation, no?
Bear is also the totem of the shaman as a healer. Shamans are shape-shifters. The bear shaman in the vision shape shifts into a flowing river of abundant life.”
Did you catch reference to the chaos in the vision? Acts of violence are chaotic. That bear was bleeding because it had been harmed. The berries in the droppings represented chaos. Bifurcation, or a break in the pattern, occurred when fecal matter mixed with juicy, nutritious pieces of woodsy fruit.
Neither one of those images are pleasant to picture. As a society, we don’t want to be too close to chaos. We want to be at a safe distance where we won’t get harmed. Odd, because who among us hasn’t viewed chaos in the form of plane accidents, wild fires, or gunfire reported on the nightly news? We are drawn like moths to a flame to destruction and violence as long as it doesn’t impact us individually and it doesn’t harm a family member.
Chaos breaks the rules of order, pattern and the regularity that deceives us into thinking life is consistent, safe, and without pain and trauma. The safety of the closed system keeps us from seeing that those ways of being will stifle and diminish our lives if left unchallenged. Chaos forces us to re-evaluate and to re-imagine what our lives could be outside the parameters of a closed system.
Let’s go into the heart of our essay by moving into an intimate form of chaos—the kind we shy away from because it’s too close. Terminal illness.
My mother was recently diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. It is a debilitating disease that will eventually claim her life. There is no cure. She was diagnosed the same day that she attended the funeral for her husband, my father. My parents had denied over and over that Mom was losing her memory. “She’s fine. Anyone at our age forgets things here and there.” Their collective denial felt deceitful, as though something fearful and shameful was being hidden from the rest of the family.
While still in a state of denial about Mom’s memory loss and without a lot of forewarning, my father died of hypertension and heart failure. Mom was no longer able to hide behind my father’s careful covering of her memory lapse during conversation. My siblings and I couldn’t bear to cancel Mom’s appointment with her primary care provider simply because it happened to land on the same day of his funeral. We hadn’t been able to get her to go to the doctor for any kind of evaluation to tell us more about the soundness of her mind.
Finally, we had the opportunity to get a medical assessment and diagnosis because the appointment was in the guise of her quarterly meds evaluation. It took less than ten minutes. I was with her during the doctor’s appointment. I had the distinct impression that the doctor had been aware of Mom’s diagnosis for some time. After all he’d been her doctor for 15 years.
The timing was the essence of irony. In a half-day period, we put my father into a grave and my mother was handed a death sentence.
Alzheimer’s disease is chaos in the body, specifically in the brain. The disease will slowly erode portions of Mom’s brain that hold onto memory, balance, language and social norms. The disease ain’t pretty, no disease is. And it’s painful to observe the effects of the disease as it advances in my Alma Mater. It’s painful to pause for long on the chaos that is slowly destroying her life.
Let’s take another breath for a moment, a distraction really. Remember, I said that chaos is draining; it’s insufferable when it occurs on a continual basis, and we can’t bear the intensity for long. Chaos is the irrational number that never quits.
Here’s how Malcolm Gladwell helps us to understand the impact of chaos in his book, David and Goliath. (He is quoting from J.T. MacCurdy, a Canadian psychiatrist who devised the following schema.) He gives us three responses to chaos when it occurs. He uses the word, ‘trauma’ which, in my book, qualifies as chaos. He’s framed the experience of chaos from a perspective of wartime bombing.
The first response to a bomb falling in close proximity to a human is fatal. The bomb is destructive enough to cause death. The second response to a bomb falling in close proximity to a human is called a “near miss”. In today’s parlance the result can be a TBI—traumatic brain injury, or PTSD, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. The chaos is close enough to cause resultant pain, fear, instability, and terror. The third response to a bomb falling in close proximity to a human is called a “remote miss”.
This is the response we want to key in on.
Those who experience a “remote miss” are close enough to the chaos to observe it but they’re impacted differently than the first two groups. They don’t die and they’re not traumatized. They are impacted in a strangely empowering way. They respond to the chaos with a feeling of invincibility: “I survived! I didn’t die when the bomb dropped!” Oddly enough, they begin to feel exhilarated at the fact that they faced chaos and came away unscathed.
Our author then puts a last spin on his observations. There are events in our lives that can be viewed as ‘desirable difficulty’ and framing those events as ‘desirable’ suggests that they’re not merely negative and something to be avoided at all costs. They can leave us feeling emboldened in a way that we would not have felt had they NOT occurred. Chaos can empower us; it’s as simple as that—IF we allow it.
We can view those events as bright red berries found in bear scat.
How we experience events in our lives is determined by our response to those events, not the events in and of themselves. This can make all the difference in the world relative to quality of life. Goldilocks ventured into the chaos of the forest and found home. My childhood was less than optimal and yet I find aspects within my alma mater that are good. Mom will encounter death eventually, but she’s not there quite yet.
We must not forget and shy away from the opportunity that chaos provides us for growth, creativity, and beauty, even vulnerability. We must grasp chaos in the best way possible as though it is the golden ring on the merry-go-round of life. Without it we atrophy and move into loss of freedom and stagnation wherein change becomes nearly impossible.
Our two guest authors highlight a subtle difference between the two groups that find themselves in the bomb-ridden neighborhood and we don’t to want to miss the distinction. The subtle difference, reminiscent of a butterfly flapping its wings, makes all the difference in the world to those experiencing it.
The proximity to the bomb explosions for the “near miss” and “remote miss” groups was at times minimal, and at times, non-existent! They were the same group of folks experiencing the bomb but HOW they experienced the destruction was earth shatteringly different.
Let’s rephrase the distinction so that we don’t miss the subtlety. It’s critical to our experience of chaos, upheaval, and family members with Alzheimer’s disease.
Chaos is unpredictable and turbulent. Yes, agreed! But how we engage chaos determines our experience of it. The subtle shift being suggested is to grasp the moment so that acceptance of what happens in our lives transforms the experience itself.
Nature is “Red in tooth and claw” meaning that nature is predatory. As human beings we are part of nature. We inflict pain and we are inflicted upon. Both create chaos in our lives. But the last image from the vision shape shifts that chaos into something different. Life can move away from chaos into the joy and peacefulness found in an expansive flow of inspiration, creativity, and beauty—and that acceptance prepares us for whatever comes our way on the morrow.
With gratitude for their insightful and informative books that I LOVED reading:
Briggs, John & Peat, F. David, Seven Life Lessons Of Chaos Timeless Wisdom From the Science of Change, New York: HarperCollins, 1999.
Gladwell, Malcolm, David and Goliath Underdogs, Misfits, and The Art of Battling Giants, New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2013.