Tidying Up: Our Unstoppable Quest for Order in the Universe
by Claudia Dowling
The world is too big. We can’t wrap our little minds around it, so we frame it, contain it. Stack it. Sort it. Strap it. Pat it. Prune it. Slice and dice it. We stereotype and generalize, categorize and organize. Because it’s all too much information. We can’t even.
The eye imports the unintelligible jumble, and the brain sorts it, color-codes it, tries to break it down to recognizable images and make sense of it. A photographer picks one frame from the torrent of input in his or her field of vision and simplifies, looking for some intrinsic logic. In that one selected frame, a picture can capture harmony and meaning. Outside the frame is—well, all that other stuff. Three hundred and sixty degrees of relentless reality.
So make the world smaller. Pull the camera back, a space shot away from the chaotic mess of humankind, and experience the music of the spheres as they whirl in orderly circles. Get closer, and there are our gridlike cities and parking lots, the meticulous rows of corn and terraces of rice we have imprinted on the landscape. Rivers snake and mountains erupt according to their own natures, and still we try to groom and manicure the very earth itself.
Or get very close to a photographic frame and examine the pixels. The word comes from “picture elements,” a human construct that makes an image into a pointillist grid of dots or squares, a Georges Seurat or Chuck Close writ exceeding small. Get closer still, with an electron microscope, and it’s the natural order again: tiny solar systems of atoms.
The world is too dangerous. People need patterns to cope. Is that dappling the effect of the sun shining through leaves—or the spots of a leopard? You have to decide quickly, and the more deeply encoded the patterns, the faster your brain can process. Sometimes it’s good to be on autopilot. Decision-making is exhausting. Friend or enemy? Here or there? This or that? Stash or trash? What goes with what? What to put in, what to leave out.
So make the world safer. Make it more predictable. Standardize. If you can’t find patterns, construct them. Make big-box stores with identical layouts. Stand in the place where you live and think about directions. Invent numbers to mark street and highway signs. Create emojis. Make symbols—a picture of a mortar and pestle for an apothecary’s shop or letters to brand a chain drugstore—so you know what to expect when you walk through the door. People like familiar packaging. Pattern recognition.
The world is out of control. Floods, hurricanes, wildfires. Deserts blooming. Tropical fish straying into northerly waters. The strange migrations of birds. We’ve never been able to control the weather, but it seems crazier than ever. And then there’s the everyday stuff we can’t control—delays, malfunctions, our children, appetites, our tempers. No wonder we have control issues.
So control your own chaotic world. We get a little OCD. We make our immediate environment more manageable by cutting it into bite-sized pieces. A two-year-old sorts her shoes into pairs and places them in a careful circle around her feet. A wage slave squares his laptop and makes a flurry of decisions about where to file each piece of paper floating around the office. A housekeeper arranges cushions symmetrically on the couch. Human beings crave symmetry. In a face, it is perceived as beauty; in our surroundings, it is perceived as clarity. Clear the decks. Clear the desk. Clear the mind.
But the world is too big. Something always messes with our neatnik framework, an inner Oscar to our inner Felix. Perfect order is the impossible dream. We can organize into pixels and fractals and pterodactyls, but the next thing you know—kablam! All bets are off. There is no final cut. Fifty-two pickup. Toss all the cards in the air, and they fall in a new pattern. Synchronicity? Maybe.
Chaos theory posits that new patterns are jump-started by tiny initial actions, that a butterfly’s wing or a swimmer’s flutter kick can cause a concatenation of events that result in a tornado in Kansas. So, Dorothy, here’s to new beginnings. Embrace the process. Chaos is creative. This is the pleasure and the paradox. A tabula rasa.
We get to start over, creating order and serenity from chaos. In that inchoate mess are so many possibilities. Because the world is so big, and so very beautiful.
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