What contributes to the sense that chaos is rising in the world? In this newsletter I’d like to tease apart what I see as the many layers of this “chaos” to better understand it and how we can respond.
(This comes from one of our many conversations in the Bright Future Network. I share it both as a window into the network and in its own right.)
The Layers of Chaos
What do we mean by chaos?
At the dictionary level, chaos is “a state of disorder and confusion.” That makes it sound like something “out there” but it’s as much in our minds as in the world. It’s a human assessment we apply to situations we don’t understand. Two people can look at the same situation and only one may assess it as chaotic.
Actual and apparent
Nevertheless, it certainly feels like familiar social patterns are breaking down or at least being challenged/questioned at an increasing rate – whether it’s the norm-busting of Trump and his allies or the norm-busting of #MeToo. It does indeed feel like something objective – that seems chaotic – is rising. Yet there are also many forces and actors in society that are amplifying the impression of chaos – both intentionally and not. We need to tease these apart to find our right relationship with what’s actually going on.
I’m using the metaphor of layers because I feel what we experience as “chaos” is a blurred-together composite of many different influences. Here’s a stack of the ones I’ll call out in this post:
OK, on to the specifics:
- Breakdown of the old – If we’re indeed in the later stages of the Empire-to-Planetary transition, then we should expect to see lots of familiar cultural patterns and institutions breaking down. Since culture is more of a complex adaptive system than a machine, this breakdown doesn’t follow a smooth process. As those committed to the old ways feel they’re losing their grip, they try harder to hold on. It often feels like two steps forward, one step back – or even one step forward, two back. The old may be leaving but it’s not gone yet. We’re in a tipping zone that will likely last for many more years – and it feels chaotic while we’re in this whitewater. I count this as an actual increase in the chaos.
- Emergence of the new – New cultural patterns are emerging but they haven’t stabilized yet. The same basic innovation may show up in many forms and it’s hard to tell where it’s all headed. This too feels chaotic – even where it feels welcome. I count this also as an actual increase in the chaos.
- Agents of chaos – One of the classic ways to gain advantage in a power-struggle is to confuse your opponent by acting chaotically. It makes you less predictable and tends to jam your opponent’s circuits. This is one of the keys to the military strategy, developed by Colonel John Boyd, often know as the OODA loop. It’s also standard practice in the kind of zero-sum negotiating that Trump has based his career on. More broadly, it’s a favorite of authoritarian movements (across the political spectrum) attempting to gain power.Those of us who aren’t practiced in these dominance games are easy prey to such tactics. We get upset. We get confused. We react. We want to fight, flee or freeze. We’re triggered out of our optimal zone. We get played.
Unless … we practice recognizing this tactic, treating it as “noise” and deepening our capacity to stay in or return to our optimal zone. Many martial arts – I think especially of Aikido – train their practitioners in this skill of staying centered in the midst of seeming chaos. We don’t have to get there via a martial art but we do need to become more discerning and optimal-zone resilient.
I count this as mostly an apparent increase in the chaos although the provocateurs often create a microcosm of actual chaos (disruption, violence) as their way of attempting to psychologically impact a much larger population.
- Expanded connectivity – A few decades ago we wouldn’t have gotten 24/7 news about a group of boys stuck in a cave in Thailand. In thousands of ways we’re much more aware of the rest of the world now than we’ve ever been. This easily tips into information-overload and a heightened sense of chaos. I count this as an apparent increase in the chaos. It’s not a change of what’s actually happening on the ground, just a change of our awareness of what’s happening.
- Media distortion – The commercial media is in the business of delivering eyeballs to advertiser. They choose material that’s likely to grab your attention, which means there’s a bias toward the chaotic and dramatic. The individual stories may be accurate but the overall effect is to portray the world as apparently more chaotic than it actually is.
- Activist distortion – Activists of all kinds, political and non-political, often struggle to get attention for their cause. The temptation is strong to hype their particular issue with cries of urgency and impending chaos. Even though the science is clear that this doesn’t work for long-term issues like climate change, many people still believe it’s the best strategy. As in the media, the details of the particular claims may be accurate but out of proportion with the bigger picture. The overall impression – especially the cumulative effect from many causes – is of an apparently more chaotic world than exists.This layer can be particularly pernicious because we often trust and sympathize with at least some of these activists. We can easily get caught up in their hype without realizing it or feel somehow disloyal if we raise questions. There’s a professor of Atmospheric Sciences at the University of Washington, Cliff Mass, who sometimes uses his popular weather blog to try to separate the hype from the science of climate change. He’s not at all a climate-change denier but he gets attacked for staying true to what the science actually supports.
- Collective reverb – It’s not only activists we’re influenced by. We’re strongly influenced by all those we know/trust/respect. If they become agitated by the chaos, we may also. We get caught up in the madness of crowds. Social media make this effect more powerful by favoring the same kind of attention-grabbing communications that plague the media and activist layers. I see this as a particularly strong amplifier of the apparent increase in chaos.
These factors aren’t likely to subside any time soon. How can we respond? By getting really good at:
- reframing the breakdown/emergence layers from “chaos” to “cultural birthing process”
- honing our discernment between the actual and apparent
- deepening our capacity to stay in our optimal zone (centered) in the midst of upheaval.
We can then turn the energy of these times into opportunities for meaningful change.
Early-Bird registration for Oct/Nov Bright Future Now ends 8/18
If you’d like to learn practical tools for helping to usher in the Planetary Era and collaborate with fellow change-makers from around the world, I invite you to join the upcoming 7-week online Bright Future Now course. Graduates say that by the end of the course they feel ready for anything – and more at ease within themselves in the midst of these tumultuous times.
In this time of transformation, may you find the support you need to be the change you want to see.
August 15, 2018