Chaos Theory and the Self-Organizing Creativity of Politics, Poetry, and Sickness

I have been sick all weekend. Like everyone, I hate the malaise, the ennui, the sense of everything just stopping for awhile until my body recovers. Especially when I was young, given my family history, every time I got sick I was certain that I would die. I haven’t yet, but the years of second-hand and first-hand smoke from birth to age 30 have resulted in a mild asthma so that even minor viruses seem to aim right for my lungs.

Being sick, however, does give me time and opportunity to connect on an inner level to all others who are experiencing illness and what it does to one’s energy, life-force, creativity.  This morning I thought of a poem I wrote in 2001 when I was sick and watching that year’s summer Olympics. It has never been published, but I still like it, so here it is, for anyone else who happens to be sick at the moment.


without desire

sickness has sifted like silt

into the flow

of your summer


that old nemesis claiming

a visit or maybe

a home


either way he will filch

your delight in food,

beauty, laughter, movement,


show you how loosely

your silken senses tie you

to life


how finicky your taste

how jarring touch

how heavily


sound and smell intrude

as your body slakes even

minimal motion


sight remains a draw

but he will render

it distant


as the out of doors you are missing

lying with him in your

hot twisted bed


tv athletes seem another species

from the viewing box

of pain


dependence becomes a bore as others demand

you kick the bastard out,

better get better soon


outside life like a greek shade

you watch its smoky richness

without desire


gourmet fare no longer tempts,

beauty no longer beckons,

urgent tasks no longer summon


and the morning you wake

without his arms flung

over you


and feel a flick of craving

to rise, eat, talk,

you shiver, hesitate,


wonder why you should again edge out

onto those flimsy surfaces

and when, not


if, your departed lover,

who’s left, as usual, a mess

will return to stay


It’s interesting to me now how I personified sickness as a lover, so obviously there is some impulse to surrender to it as well, as when I was a child playing hide and seek and, finding  the anxious wait to be discovered unbearable, would step out of hiding and allow myself to be caught.

Last night when I couldn’t sleep, I reached for the closest reading material, which happened to be a book from 1999 (about the same era as the above poem) called Seven Life Lessons of Chaos: Timeless Wisdom from the Science of Change by John Briggs and F. David Peat.  One of the early books linking contemporary physics (here, chaos theory) to phenomena like creativity, I have always found it fascinating.  The growing concept of a self-organizing universe feels so right to me as it links the areas of science, spirituality, and inter-connectedness in life-affirming ways.

The book speaks of the need for uncertainty and chaos in order to access a kind of freedom that can lead to something new. As they say, “Going through the death of a loved one, a divorce, or a period of self-doubt is painful, but often those are the very experiences that bring us to a keen sense of the truth beyond words and a new path in life.” They go on to say that such moments occur to us all, for instance, when we really LOOK at an individual tree instead  of just nodding at it and thinking “tree.”  When we open ourselves to the chaos—the momentary truth of the moment—despite our discomfort, amazing things can happen.

What keeps us from this? They say, “many of us don’t feel creative and persistenly block the action of creativity in much of our lives. We lose it in our obsessions with control and power; in our fear of mistakes; in the constricted grip of our egos; in our fetish with remaining within comfort zones; in our continuous pursuit of repetitive or merely stimulating pleasure; in our restricting our lives to the containers of what other people think; in our adherence to the apparent safety of closed orders; and in our deep-seated belief that the individual exists in an irreducible opposition to others and the world ‘outside’ of the self.”

They go on to say that “creativity often involves entering chaos in order to rediscover something old or retrieve the freshness of the everyday. A sense of newness seems an inevitable characteristic of creativity, because when we enter the vital turbulence of life, we realize that, at bottom, everything is always new. Often we have simply failed to notice this fact. When we’re being creative, we take notice.”

There is more I could quote, but I urge you, if interested, to take a look at the book.  These are the seven lessons which they discuss in terms of current scientific as well as creative and political theories: 

  1. Being Creative
  2. Using Butterfly Power
  3. Going with the Flow
  4. Exploring What’s Between
  5. Seeing the Art of the World
  6. Living within Time
  7. Rejoining the Whole

Whenever I feel a kind of despair or self-doubt, as after the recent elections, it is helpful to remember that things can and will yet evolve through “subtle influence.”  Through such influence, the Berlin wall fell 25 years ago, Jim Crow laws unraveled through Rosa Park’s work, and my own anxiety about the future can open up to the realization that we simply do not know what will come to pass: that surrendering to the felt risk of chaos can indeed give way to creative solutions that we could never have dreamed of ourselves.  

I will close with this: “So although cynical realists argue that human nature can never change from the greedy, self-centered, hierarchical, power-driven consciousness that has dominated history, chaos theory opens the door on such change. It suggests that consciousness is not confined to what is just taking place privately within our individual heads. Consciousness is an open system like the weather. It is shaped by language, society, and all our daily interactions. Each one of us is an aspect of the collective consciousness of the world, and the contents of that consciousness are constantly being altered by the forces of chaos that each of us expresses. The strategies of human nature are not absolutely fixed. Through chaos, one individual or a small group of individuals can deeply and subtly influence the entire world.”

And so I take a deep breath to clear my lungs and my mind of the status quo and allow, for the time being, the “mess”—the chaos—that unexpected illness always provides to lead to something new.  I think, in other vocabularies, this is sometimes termed “grace.”

One thought on “Chaos Theory and the Self-Organizing Creativity of Politics, Poetry, and Sickness

  1. Thanks so much for this great entry, Kathleen. As you know, Seven Life Lessons of Chaos is also one of my favorite books. Seems to me these days that the challenge/opportunity is to drop the linear story, the burden of viewing oneself as the protagonist of a not-so-epic. More of an unreliable narrator in an uncertain, shifting genre. As Daniel reminds me when my drama-loving Leo moon has shifted into high gear, "Mom, there is no story." Maybe a haiku. Maybe a stand-up comedy routine. 🙂


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