"In all chaos there is a cosmos, in all disorder a secret order."— Carl Jung
You stand before the easel, an empty canvas awaits your command. What will you paint? Within the confines of your mind, a morass of boundless possibilities begins to flitter and stir . This realm within is nebulous and infinite, fuzzy and indistinct, yet in time, form begins to take shape. For a fleeting nanosecond it is completely abstract and devoid of any noticeable frame or semblance, when suddenly, the personified idea emerges distinct and recognizable. You lift your arm to put brush to canvas, blocking-in large tracts of shade and lineation. As the process continues, a landscape begins to materialize. Differing values of light, color and tone are applied. Perspective and texture are defined, bringing depth and dimension to the scene. Composition adds balance; another world comes into being.
What just happened? Was it the Big Bang? Was it Genesis? Well, perhaps I’m being a bit hyperbolic, but seriously...what just happened? Regardless of it occurring on a much smaller scale, from my perspective, that doesn't make it any less miraculous. Because however many times we repeat the same procedure, the possibilities of the outcome are infinite. We have before us an empty canvas and the possibilities of what we can create on that flat void of empty space are literally endless. If we want, we can transmit the thoughts manifesting within our consciousness to detailed fruition and paint representationally... or probe that deeper, enigmatic state, where the thought is not yet fully-formed, where emotion and passion reign, and paint more abstractly— more expressively. Either way, whether you want to acknowledge it or not, what’s going on here is a miraculous transference from the metaphysical to the physical world. In a more simple vernacular : order from chaos.
Chaos usually gets a bad rap and perhaps deservedly so. Okay, I’ll admit it...chaos can be a bastard. Did you fall out of bed this morning? - Chaos. Flat tire on the way to work?- Chaos again. Get some really bad news from the doctor? - Chaos calling! Chaos is almost always associated with bad news. Chaos is everywhere we look. It is persistent, it lurks around every corner, and chaos always catches up with you in the end. But just as chaos is defined by confusion, calamity and disorder, it is also associated with that formless, primordial state which precedes existence: the possibility of future possibilities.
In April of 2013 terrorists bombed the Boston Marathon. Chaos was everywhere you looked. Three people were killed in the initial two explosions and hundreds more were maimed and wounded. In the ensuing days of the manhunt to catch the evildoers, more would die, more would be injured, and the whole of the Greater Boston area would be intimately acquainted with Chaos. I live about 30 miles south of the city. It is hard to describe the palpable state of anxiety which indeed gripped the whole state of Massachusetts that week. Everyone was on edge and everyone was concerned for the victims. In the days following the attack, I wrote the following Facebook post which went nominally viral:
AN OPEN LETTER TO THE WOUNDED OF BOSTON - As a veteran, double amputee, and fellow Massachusetts resident, I'd like to offer my condolences and deepest sympathy to the families of the victims of yesterday's attack. I'd also like to offer words of comfort and support to those whose lives were forever changed yesterday by traumatic loss of limbs. Although it's undeniably tragic , you will recover. And you must have hope that this terrible trauma will in no way stop you from living a full and productive life. In fact, this will be a defining moment in your life. In the coming days, weeks, and months, you will find a strength and resilience you never knew you had. Take solace in the fact that we in the veteran community are recovering with you. Look to the veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan who have lost limbs for support and inspiration.
I meant every one of those words. They come from experience. In 2003, with the conflicts in both Iraq and Afghanistan ramping up, I had personally witnessed the grit and determination of dozens of U.S. Veterans while we recovered together from traumatic limb amputations on Ward 57 at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, DC. Many of those Vets have since gone on to live full and productive lives. Surviving a traumatic ordeal such as limb-loss has a funny way of forcing one to focus on the important aspects of life — family, community, perseverance, love and strength to mention a few. While obviously a monumental and cataclysmic event, the process of piecing one’s life back together after any devastating loss can inescapably make one stronger. Hope is imperative , but a new way of thinking is often necessary as well. New values must be established— or perhaps just a focus on long-neglected ones . One is forced to prioritize while also accepting limitations. The old rules may no longer apply. Creative thinking is not only encouraged but essential.
In my own story, creativity has played a major role in not only learning to live with the loss of my arms but also in bringing meaning and purpose into my life. Not only had chaos entered my life but in many ways it had totally obliterated it. However it had also provided a ‘clean slate’ so to speak. Please understand that I am in no way trying to trivialize tragic events here, I am merely trying to emphasize that life still exists— it must go on— and those of us left behind to pick up the pieces have an obligation to do so to our best abilities. We have to rebuild. We have to re-adapt and learn not to repeat the errors of the past. In the wake of chaos we must re-establish order— a new order, a better order— one that can withstand the inevitable return of chaos, even though we can never fully outrun it in the end. And isn’t that the ultimate conclusion? that existence in itself is tragic? that chaos eventually catches up to us all in death? that everything we know and experience will end? that suffering is not the exception but rather the rule of existence? When I first began to fully grasp these truths, I began to better understand why I was so instinctually inclined to fall back on artistic abilities after getting hurt so badly. What is creativity but the innate need to establish order, to make sense of the senseless? We assign values to the things we create. They are beautiful to us. Order is beautiful. And bringing order and understanding into one’s existence can provide meaning and purpose to it.
Creativity can be both a collaborator and a conqueror of chaos. Chaos opens the door for creativity and vice versa. Creative thinking requires chaos. Everyone has heard the phrase, 'thinking outside the box'. What does that phrase mean if not, an upsetting of the established order, i.e., chaos? Creativity uses chaos to bring new ideas into the mix. When the old established order has outlived its usefulness, our innate creativity must re-establish it by using chaos, by harnessing it, and bending it to our will.
If you can absorb the blow that chaos inflicts— the initial shock and confusion as well as the necessary period of grief and acceptance that follows— you may ultimately come out on top. Ask yourself, “ what will you paint?” Better yet, focus on the tools you have left to paint with. What are the potentialities? What is possible? What is impossible? If we meditate on these questions long enough, a spark of hope will undoubtedly emerge. We must nourish it. We must provide this tiny ember of optimism with the necessary combustibles it requires to flourish into a raging inferno. It may flame-out at first, but the coals of that initial promise will remain. We can’t relent. We must rebuild this fire anew and keep it burning. Creativity will be our tinder. Perseverance will be our fuel-source. With that fire now blazing we return to our canvas with new aim and purpose. Our palette is refreshed, our brushes are cleaned and set in perfect order. A fresh, clean, stark-white canvas is set out before us. What will you paint?
“From where we stand the rain seems random. If we could stand somewhere else, we would see the order in it.” ― Tony Hillerman