Chaos is Good News?
One of my favorite authors, Pema Chödrön, Comfortable with Uncertainty, has a quote I find challenging and unsettling, “We should always consider a time of chaos to be very good news.” I thought to myself, "What could that mean?" I believe that stability, dependability, assurance, and predictability is wonderful news. Chaos always feels like bad news. And I’ve had some chaotic times in my life!
In February 1989, my wife, Mary, and I discovered that she was pregnant with our first child. The good news was that we would have a family and become parents. The bad news was that we weren’t married, we had no house, no job, and were living in Africa where I was a missionary. We were continents away from where we wanted to live. I filled the next six months with worry, fear, and anxiety. As I waited in Africa for my substitute to arrive, Mary went to England to wait for me.
One evening, outside of my small round house with a thatched roof, I watched the sunset over the mountains, and felt a deep peace come over me. I recognized then that I was being offered a fresh start, a life I always wanted but didn’t believe I could ever have. I thought the “sunk costs” of a decision I made in my twenties meant a “life sentence” of loneliness. During the months I waited, my family worked to submit applications for jobs, looked for housing, and even found furniture for me. Another friend helped me with wedding plans. Within three weeks of arriving home, I landed a job, rented an apartment, and launched a new life. But the cost was that I had to let go of everything I learned and achieved before. I was a beginner husband, a beginner dad. And I became the lowest case manager on the staff of a foster care agency at 37 years old.
That moment of chaos back in 1989 was full of anguish, worry, shame, and heartache. But because of that life-changing disruption, I could let go of the “sunk costs” of my investment in a previous life and open to a new life which I never regretted.
Many of us are going through a similar experience now; our lives turned upside down on a global scale. Many of my friends and family are facing a future filled with unknowns. The sunk costs of our investments in a life or career are now uncertain or irrelevant.
Facing an unknown future, uncertain prospects, leaving the familiar, and letting go is full of anguish and fear.
Can I stay with this moment of uncertainty without retreating to an easy fix?
Moments of chaos shake us to the core. Shake up our plans. Shake us out of feeling trapped or stuck. These moments of chaos reveal a deep insecurity — Externally, I see a world filled with turmoil and disruption. Is anything or anyone trustworthy anymore? Internally I wonder, “Will I survive this? Am I capable? Do I have the strength to face such widespread and pervasive instability and unrest?”
Can I stay with the uncertainty long enough to learn its lesson?
Sometimes our “sunk costs” seem too much to walk away from (a degree, experience, position, etc.). But in moments of significant disruption, there is an opportunity to reimagine who we are, find what is most important and satisfying, and look for a new beginning.
Fear strangles our spirit and shackles our creativity. We miss opportunities and possibilities. The dark shadows in our minds lock us into feeling trapped.
Do we have the courage to be curious? “This is interesting. I wonder what will happen next.” The only way to open to possibilities is to find within myself a peaceful heart and a quiet mind.
Here’s a straightforward practice for when the dark shadowy figures of fear, doubt, worry, and anxiousness arise. When the ground under our feet gets shaky. When nothing seems the way it was.
Stop. Look at something in your environment—a bird, a tree, a leaf, a flower—look at it as if you would sketch it or describe it to someone who can’t see it.
Use some of your senses — see its color or shape, feel its texture, smell a scent, listen for a sound. When you feel the urge to move on, take a few deep breaths and look at subtle differences.
Imagine now describing this to another or to yourself. Take this moment to step back and lean into the world as it is. It is an opportunity to get out of the dark thoughts, to step out of the virtual world of fear, and to step into another world of scents, sounds, and sights.
For a moment, let yourself feel some relief from worry, fear, and anxiety, just as I did watching the sunset over the mountains in Zimbabwe. And when you return to this uncertain world, you might see things a little differently.
In moments of peace, there is an opening to creativity and possibility. When we aren’t caught up in the negativity of our dark shadows, we see options we couldn't imagine before. We are open to opportunities, serendipity, and coincidence that might lead us in a different path, a new direction, and out of feeling trapped or stuck.
Can we take a moment to find the peace within that opens our minds to new possibilities?