Friday, January 25, 2013

A little chaos with your serenity

As I drove home during rush hour yesterday evening listening to my local NPR station, the two top stories on the news were about the recent cold snap which has sent temperatures into the single digits and the prevalence of flu this winter.

And although I feel bad for people who have the flu right now and even worse for people suffering in the frigid temperatures, there was something comforting about the thought that there are certain things like flu and inclement weather that affect all of us, to one degree or another.

Sometimes society just seems so disparate, so bifurcated in every possible way: affluent versus destitute, sick versus well, Republican versus Democrat, for versus against gun rights or abortion or capital punishment or any number of other things. So even though neither the cold snap nor the flu virus can really be construed as good news, I took some comfort in the fact that these were problems on which we could all agree, more or less. Yes, getting the flu is awful. Yes, it sure is cold out. Yes, we all have this in common.

It’s not just a matter of small talk, of common interests we can all chat about while in line at the coffee shop. It’s knowing that to some extent, what knits us together as a society is our problems as much as our pleasures. My son, who is in eighth grade this year, has been studying dystopias in his English class. He was surprised that a common element in literature about dystopias is often a sense of happiness, or at least complacency. But, these novels show, uniform contentedness isn't always a productive emotion. Not having any apparent problems may also mean that no one is working together to fix anything.

And this is what struck me about the news yesterday: sometimes what’s wrong is what’s right, in a peculiar way. Sometimes when we can agree on a problem, we work together better than when there isn’t any problem, or at least no problem on whose terms we can agree.

A few weeks ago, this quotation from Friedrich Nietzsche arrived in my in-box: “One must have chaos in oneself in order to give birth to a dancing star.” It’s not exactly the same point, but it made me think about how often I and my peers – busy middle-aged women juggling jobs, families and creative pursuits – talk about finding serenity, peace, inner stillness. All of that is good and important indeed, but the quotation reminded me that, as Happiness Project writer Gretchen Rubin likes to say, sometimes the opposite of a profound truth is also true. Serenity helps us to think and do and create, but so does chaos. And keeping that in mind might help, maybe just a little, when chaos hits.


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