Questions and Chaos

Life in the 21st Century

Life in the 21st Century

Friday, July 27, 2007

When I read commentary on current affairs I wonder if I am the only person excited about being alive in the 21st century. Thirty years ago 2007 existed in a future that I couldn’t imagine. Prospects looked bleak, if they existed at all.

The invention of the nuclear bomb and rapid acceleration of technology had created a frightening view of the future. The media talked endlessly about an immanent nuclear holocaust. The church was preaching the coming of the end of the world. I had nightmares about fireballs rolling across the horizon. I worried about surviving nuclear winter.

In school, we studied the book, 1984by George Orwell. In the “future” of 1984 humanity lived a grim existence controlled by the surveillance of thought police. Cameras and microphones monitored all movement and every conversation.

The movie 2001 Space Odyssey featured an independent minded super computer that killed people to maintain its control. It was thought that computers would soon surpass human intelligence. Having a superior intelligence suggested that they might have the ability to enslave us. (Today, anyone who has tried to get Microsoft Word to change an I to an i is not worried.) Here we are in 2007. The sun is still shining, the grass is still growing and the end of the world didn’t happen. Certainly civilization faces challenges in this century. However, when we look back through history, was there ever a better time to be alive?

We have conveniently forgotten there was a time in human history when people ate their enemies. Three hundred years ago, North Americans were going to Africa to steal slaves. Now North Americans are going to Africa to provide medicine for AIDS, drill wells, build orphanages and adopt children. Thirty years ago, I remember hearing that women shouldn’t work in sales because they couldn’t travel and stay in hotels all alone. Now a woman can command the space shuttle and no one argues about it.

The population explosion, increased travel, economic globalization and the internet have created the beginnings of a global consciousness for the first time in human history. Issues such as nuclear proliferation and global warming are making people realize that we are all in this together. Human beings are beginning to understand that we cannot murder and pillage other societies without hurting ourselves. In a global society all tribes and ethnicities are forced to interact. “Don’t talk to strangers” is no longer applicable. In a global society there are no strangers.

Paul Hawken, long time environmentalist, entrepreneur and author has written a new book about the changes happening in global culture titled Blessed Unrest. In his talk about the book (well worth listening to) he describes how over the years he had accumulated business cards from environmental and social justice organizations. He found himself wondering just how many such organizations there are in the world and discovered that no one had compiled this information. As he researched for himself he found 30,000, then 70,000, then 100,000 organizations and the numbers continued to grow. Currently, he estimates there are between one and two million organizations dedicated to social justice and environmental issues. If you were to scroll the names down a TV screen, like movie credits, they would run twenty-four hours a day for four weeks. These organizations are spread throughout the world, across every tribe, culture and class.

Each organization has its own particular mission but their missions don’t contradict each other. Whether they are working for access to water, for workers’ rights, for sustainable housing, to protect forests or for the right to read, they are all working to make the world a safer and healthier place. A database of organizations is being compiled at In the past all social movements, such as political and religious ideologies, have started with a leader and become more fragmented as they grew through time. This is a movement that began fragmented and is growing together as independent parts of a larger network. Hawken sees these organizations functioning as a global immune system, each doing its part for the greater good.

If organizations for social change are not readily visible, then the work of individuals is even less visible. For every individual who joins an organization there are many others who are quietly applying these principles to their own lives. Individuals in every country and culture focusing on the greater good as they earn their living and care for their families.

News reports and commentary focus on the problems and challenges facing the world. Poverty, war, terrorism, and environmental destruction can be seen as the illnesses of the world. Just as we are unaware of our immune system at work, we are unaware of the millions of people who are creating, nurturing, healing, protecting and growing to make the world a wiser and healthier planet.

Without a leader and without a guidebook, individuals across the planet have embraced the words of Mahatma Ghandi, “Be the change you wish to see in the world.”

That is exciting!

WordPress Blogging Tip

Friday, July 20, 2007

NEVER, NEVER, NEVER copy and paste from Microsoft Word into WordPress. It inserts hidden formatting that makes things go crazy. It may look fine in one browser but look all messed up in another browser. Even when the post is deleted the formatting seems to stay there. It took me more than a whole day to learn this.

Why Write

Thursday, July 19, 2007

I’m guessing that people will ask me why I am writing. “Because I want to,” is probably not an answer that will satisfy them. And that’s okay.

Why do I want to write? I have decided to write a blog because I can speak without asking permission. I can write about whatever interests me without worrying about an editor’s opinion, an acceptable tone, an acceptable style, a niche, a slant or the best marketability.

First and foremost I am writing for myself.

I am writing for the little girl who was never allowed to have an opinion. The little girl who was tossed outside by her mother and had the door locked behind her. The little girl who cried and screamed and pounded on the door. Because it wasn’t fair. It wasn’t right.

I am writing for the little girl, seven years old, who was ordered to leave the classroom for talking. In the dark hallway her hands were strapped before she was allowed back in.

I am writing for the teenager who heard people say, “She’ll never be successful in life, she’s too quiet.”

I am writing for the young woman who was asked point blank, “How come you never say anything.”

I am writing because women have been silent for centuries. Strong and silent, their thoughts never recorded in history. They kept their children alive through war, famine and disease. They were strong enough to pass life on to us. We have lost their thoughts and their wisdom because they were told to keep quiet.

From Marge Piercy’s poem For Strong Women:
“A strong woman is a woman in whose head
a voice is repeating, I told you so,
ugly, bad girl, bitch, nag, shrill, witch,
ballbuster, nobody will love you back,
why aren’t you feminine, why aren’t
you soft, why aren’t you quiet, why
aren’t you dead?”

… why aren’t you quiet … why aren’t you dead?

I am writing to reclaim my life.

Sue Monk Kidd said this about writing:

“The hardest thing about writing is telling the truth.
Maybe it’s the hardest thing about being a woman too.”

May be.

Questions and Chaos

Friday, July 13, 2007

Like everything else in nature, we are part of an ever changing and cycling world. We live out our lives in a world of infinite interactions. Like the wind and the weather we are part of a chaotic system. Generally we only see the immediate effect of our actions, if any, and tend to assume that our actions are insignificant in the big picture.

The other day, I read a newspaper article describing a very minor incident that ended up creating unbelievable havoc. A seventeen year old young man was at a play centre with his four year old nephew. Apparently the nephew threw a ball at another child. The adults accompanying this child became very angry. There was a physical altercation and police were called. Later in the day the young man was driving down the street. The same people saw him, ran him off the road with their truck and hit three other cars. Then they got out and threatened him with an axe. Now that’s a story about anger spiraling out of control!

If negative events can escalate into something much bigger than expected, it is also possible for this to happen with events we consider positive. Of course, negative events that didn’t happen are completely outside our awareness. We will never know about the man who went home and didn’t pick up an axe, even though he might have been right on the edge. We hear about the people who commit outrageous crimes. We will likely never hear about people who’ve made an outrageous change for the better. When we think about our own lives we can probably remember a time when someone said just one sentence at the right time that made a huge difference to our feelings, our confidence or our actions.

A friend of mine once found herself working in a rough part of town. When she walked down the street at lunch time she decided to smile and say “Hello” to the unkempt people she encountered. Did she make a difference? Because we can’t see the effects, we assume there aren’t any but that is not necessarily true.

Just as the snowflake falling to earth is shaped by temperature, humidity and impurities in the air, our lives are shaped by the people and situations we encounter every day. Unlike the snowflake, we have the ability to ask questions and to choose how those events will shape us. We have the power to ask, What is the most compassionate action? What would be the best action if it spread and escalated? We can choose whether we will say “Good Morning” to the homeless person, ignore him or tell him to “Get a job.” If a customer is angry with us at work, we can choose to do our best to stay calm or we can let the anger infect us and take that anger home to our children.

The best measuring instruments with the best computing power cannot predict the weather for more than four days. We have no instruments available to measure the outcomes of our actions. The best we can do is ask questions and choose our actions as wisely as we are able.

It’s a paradox that our actions may make no difference at all or they may make all the difference.


Wednesday, July 11, 2007

When you think of chaos, perhaps what comes to mind is something like a group of ten year olds at a birthday party. (yelling, falling, spilled pop, cake on the floor) A state of disorder and confusion is the traditional definition of chaos.

The science of chaos finds order and elegance in turbulent situations. defines chaos as: “A new branch of science that deals with systems whose evolution depends very sensitively upon the initial conditions. Turbulent flows of fluids (such as white water in a river) and the prediction of weather are two areas where chaos theory has been applied with some success.” The study of chaos is the study of systems where multiple variables are interacting. A tiny change in one of the initial conditions can have a disproportionate result in the outcome.

The most over-used metaphor for this phenomenon is the “Butterfly Effect”. The idea being, that a small change in initial conditions, such as a butterfly flapping it’s wings, can set in motion changes in the atmosphere that ultimately escalate into a dramatic change in weather somewhere else in the world.

According to James Gleick in Chaos:Making a New Science, “Those studying chaotic dynamics discovered that the disordered behavior of simple systems acted as a creative process. It generated complexity: richly organized patterns, sometimes stable and sometimes unstable, sometimes finite and sometimes infinite, but always with the fascination of living things.”

Chaos theory helps us understand natural processes such as the unique formation of snowflakes. A snowflake may float in the wind for an hour or more as it grows and falls to earth. The six tips of the snowflake are subjected to the same conditions so they maintain their symmetry. As the snowflake falls, it’s growth depends on such things as temperature, humidity and impurities in the air. Any two snowflakes will experience a completely different path through the turbulent air. Therefore each one will develop its own unique shape.

The pattern of a snowflake is a fractal image. Computers can be used to create fractal patterns from mathematical formulas. The site has over 300 awe-inspiring images such as the one below. (Had I known mathematics could be this beautiful I might have paid attention in high school.)

Fractal patterns exist in clouds, thunderstorms, hurricanes, in the shape of coastlines and the shape of the galaxies. They are found in frost on the window, tree branches, blood vessels, heart rhythms and the shape of the brain. Chaotic behavior exists in population growth, the spread of epidemics and the movement of the stock market.

Nature grows and moves in remarkable ways following mathematical rules and hidden patterns. Natural forms and structures are created in the same way snowflakes are created. We are only beginning to understand patterns present in our world.

Edward Lorenz, the meteorologist considered the founder of chaos theory, was running an early computer program in the 1960s attempting to model and predict weather. He found that when he entered a number rounded off to only three decimal places instead of six the result was not similar, it was completely different. He discovered the sensitivity to initial conditions that unfolds in weather

It used to be thought that given sufficient technology and computing power we could predict the weather months and even years in advance. Four days is about the best that can be done, and not always accurately. We can never measure the world to enough decimal places to accurately predict the complete movements of a chaotic system.


Thursday, July 5, 2007

“Everything you believe is questionable. How deeply have you questioned it? The uncritical acceptance of beliefs handed down to you by parents, teachers, politicians and religious leaders is dangerous. Many of these beliefs are simply false. Some of them are lies designed to control you. Even when what has been handed down is true, it is not your truth. To merely accept anything without questioning it is to be somebody else’s puppet, a second-hand person.”Beliefs can be handed down. Knowledge perhaps can be handed down. Wisdom can never be handed down. The goal of philosophy is wisdom. Trying to hand down a philosophy is unphilosophical.

Wisdom requires questioning what is questionable. Since everything is questionable, wisdom requires questioning everything. That is what philosophy is: the art of questioning everything.

The above quote is from the introductory philosophy textbook The Experience of Philosophy 3rd Ed., by Danial Kolak and Raymond Martin.

All my life I have been in love with questions. I would never accept “because I said so,” or “because that’s the right way”. I have always wanted to know “why?”

Questions are the doors to possibilities, the doors to change and the doors to living well. After all, what is wisdom, except the ability to question and make choices that create a high quality of life. Wisdom is the ability to make healthy choices from the vast possibilities available.

In areas of life from the profound to the mundane, every new question entertains a new possibility. Einstein asked, “What would it be like to travel on a beam of light?” and his search for the answer changed our understanding of the universe. Asking a better question can change our lives just as dramatically. Simple changes, such as asking, “How can I make this easier for myself?” instead of “Why am I so stupid?” or “How can I communicate with that person?” instead of “Why is that guy such a jerk?” Asking a different question gives us a different answer and when the answer translates into action we produce a new result. Questions create change. The fastest way to change the world is by asking creative new questions. As well, the easiest way to adapt to a rapidly changing world is to ask many questions.

For centuries beliefs have been handed down as knowledge and wisdom. From the time we are born everyone tells us how the world is and how we should behave to fit into it. Years of education teach us to memorize answers, but rarely teach us to ask better questions.

Most of what we learn from others teaches us how the world was for them. In fact, the world changes every day, scientific knowledge changes every day, and we change every day. Most changes happen in small increments so we are often not aware of them. We think the world is the same until something big happens: the spouse asks for a divorce, our job no longer exists or an illness throws life into disarray. We become so attached to what we know, to the answers that we hold, that often we are afraid to entertain any questions.

Yet to live with questions is to be open to all possibilities. Asking questions enables us to adapt, to change, to grow and to create. The poet, Rainer Maria Rilke, in Letters to a Young Poet urges us to live the questions:

“…have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language. Don’t search for the answers, which could not be given to you now because you would not be able to live them. And the point is to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.”

Never, in the history of the human race have we lived in such a time of accelerated change. We need to adapt every day. We need to ask questions.