[The following is a draft chapter from my upcoming book, The End of Fear Itself, and deals with one of the most common Fears, especially among people striving for success: The Fear of Chaos]
I was going to drown.
A dark wave washed over my head, for the 20th time. I was sure I was going to drown.
In 1986, I was 20 years old. My younger brother, Dave, was in high school. At the time, we lived in New Bern, North Carolina, about a 45 minute drive from the coast. Every Memorial Day Weekend, New Bern High School juniors and seniors had a tradition of racing off to the beach to party their asses off. Dave was no different, so we packed up our bodyboards, coolers, and bags of chips, and headed for the beach.
I won’t go into all the details of what happened that first evening. Suffice it to say that we were impaired later that night, when Dave and I decided to go swimming, in the ocean, which was right outside the door of the house that he and his friends had rented for the weekend.
The water was dark, and warm. There was a mild surf, so not much for bodyboarding, so we just went in to swim.
Minutes later, we were in the jaws of a riptide.
If you don’t live near the ocean, you might not be acquainted with this natural phenomenon, so I’ll give you a brief explanation.
A riptide, is when the current of the beach shifts, so that it develops an area of stiff, outward current moving away from the beach, out to sea. It can be extremely strong, so strong, that to attempt to swim against it is suicidal. Riptides claim all the time, on beaches around the world. In 2015, in the U.S. alone, 42 people lost their lives to this phenomenon.
A riptide current can be as wide as a hundred yards or more. They aren’t always that wide, but in many cases, they are. It represents a real threat to swimmers.
Well, Dave and I, more than impaired, found ourselves caught in a very strong riptide, taking us away from the beach.
Both of us were born and raised near the water. We were excellent swimmers. In fact, Dave was a certified lifeguard, and avid surfer. But try as we might, we could not swim in to shore. The harder we swam, the further out we went. The tide was winning, and we were losing energy, fast. The Fear of Death was running through our veins.
Luckily for Dave and I, our good friend, Jimmy, was on shore. He was the only person on the fuckin’ beach, as a matter of fact. Swimming in the ocean at night isn’t the smartest thing anyway, but especially if no one else is on shore.
Jimmy had noticed that we were struggling to come back in, and we yelled to him that we need help. He snapped into action, grabbed his surfboard from the sand, and dove into the dark ocean to swim out to us. When he finally reached us, Dave and I were all but spent, and probably wouldn’t have lasted much longer. We gripped ahold of Jimmy’s surfboard, and started sucking air.
Jimmy then instructed us to do something that both of us already knew—but were unable to remember in our current state—that the only way to escape a riptide, is to swim perpendicular to it, at a 90 degree angle, in other words, until you get outside of it. Then you can turn towards shore and use the natural current coming in, to bring you back.
I say, duh, but it’s not that intuitive, and many people drown, every year, because they don’t know this trick, or like Dave and I, are unable to remember it when they need it most.
We all made it back to shore that night, but Dave and I were done, completely spent of all energy. Were it not for the heroic act of our friend, Jimmy, we would both have drowned that night, and become a statistic. I would not be here writing this book, or telling this story.
Swimming Against Riptides: the Fear of Chaos and Your Imminent Drowning
Have you ever been trying to focus on accomplishing a particular task, but couldn’t keep your mind on it?
What distracted you?
For me, it’s usually all of the other things I know I need, or have to do, that continuously draws my attention and focus away from what I need to do most. I recently read Gary Keller’s book, The One Thing, in which he dealt with this very phenomenon. He argued, and I agree completely, that most of the time it is our Fear of Chaos that pulls us away from the task at hand, to our To Do List.
More often than not, the list doesn’t exist; all those things are just floating around in our brain, clouding up our thinking and our focus, fucking up the thing we need to do most, with thoughts of the laundry, or dog washing, or mowing the lawn, or picking up the kids from school, or a hundred thousand other tasks that have to be done, it’s true, but that are’t of major importance in the grand scheme of things.
The fact that we haven’t taken the time to write them down makes them even more distracting, because they are in our head, where we worry that we’ll forget them, so we have to keep putting attention on to them in order to keep the list from drifting away into the recesses of our brain, never to be seen again.
The best way to deal with this, is to write all that shit down on an actual list! It’s a brain-dump. It helps to eliminate the brain-spin, the Waring Blender of Dog Shit n Crackers, as I call it. If you let it go for too long, and then throw in some negative stimuli, you get what I call, the Whirlpool of Piss, and nobody wants that! But we get it a lot! At least I do. I’m getting better at dealing with it these days, mainly because I dump a lot of my ideas and tasks onto lists.
But the list themselves can be a distraction, if we haven’t made some connection to time. It’s not just putting things on a list that’s important; we should also give some indication of when we’re going to get around to doing it, or our mind will be concerned with the time aspect of that task and feel it has to keep dwelling on it. At the very least, we should schedule a regular time of day, or week, to review our ‘to do lists,’ so that we don’t have to think about all the stuff that’s on there, while we’re working on our most important stuff.
Why Do We Fear Chaos?
I think we fear chaos because it represents the ultimate loss of control. We love to feel in control of every situation, and really hate it when we’re not. As a species we have developed an inner desire for control over our environment, and to a large extent, we have achieved much in that direction. But control is always an illusion. In fact, we have no control over anything, with the possible exception of our own thoughts, but who really has control over those? I certainly do not. Not yet anyway.
It is this illusion, that we can have control over our environment, our friends, our family, every situation, that leads us to fear chaos. This is unfortunate, because chaos rules. Just look around you now. Put down the book for a minute and look around you.
Do you really have control over what’s happening? Is everything in perfect order in your room or outdoor space where you’re sitting reading this book? Is it really? If you think so—maybe you’re extremely tidy—look closer. Do you see a speck of dust anywhere? A cat hair or dog hair? My house is covered in both, all the time.
There is no such thing as clean. There is no perfection, other than the perfection of chaos itself. The Fear of Chaos is really the love of perfection. The problem is that perfection doesn’t exist. It is an illusion, just like the control it would take to make it a reality. We don’t control anything. We can certainly influence everything around us, in fact, many more things than we believe we can. But we can never control them.
The best cure for the Fear of Chaos—a disease we all suffer from—is to let it go.
The ancient Chinese philosophy of Taoism has some illustrative points on this topic. One might argue, that the entire philosophy is based on the idea that we do not control, only influence. If you ever read the Dao de Jing, you’ll find that the metaphor of water, of rivers in particular, is central to the entire idea of Dao.
The Dao—the way, the Universe, everything—is like a flowing river. We are all in the river; you can be no other place. We can choose to swim with the river, or against it, but either way, we move down stream. Much like my brother and I, if you choose to swim against the current—which is to say control the flow of the river, or swim against an irresistible force like a riptide—you will become exhausted and drown. If you try to damn up the river, it will overflow the dam and destroy it. The river, the riptide, the Dao, cannot be stopped.
If, however, we choose to swim with the current, we have choices as to which side we drift towards, whether we avoid rocks in the river, or low-hanging trees, or swim perpendicular to the riptide. We save our energy for the choices we make, instead of wasting it on trying to control the flow of the river, or to swim against it.
Swimming against the river, against the tide is exhibiting a Fear of Chaos; it’s an attempt to control our environment. It is an illusion, just as swimming upstream in a fast moving river. It ain’t gonna happen. Stop trying to control Chaos. Turn around, and let it be.
Chaos or Order?: a Matter of Perspective?
I was talking with a friend of mine at the farmers market the other week, on the topic of gardening—at which I suck. He admitted that he wasn’t particularly good at it either. I told him that the only thing I was really good at growing, was weeds. He replied that he had always found that the easiest way to eliminate weeds was through reclassification. Instead of calling them weeds, he just started calling them wildflowers, and BOOM!
This is a perfect illustration on how our mind creates the reality we experience. The difference between weeds, and wildflowers, is really a difference in vocabulary. It is how we choose to see them, to classify them. It has nothing to do with a reality of weeds versus wildflowers.
They are both. It is our own mind that decides which reality we see. We can choose order or chaos, but really it just depends on how you look at the world. There is a certain order within chaos itself, after all. Look at the way Nature works around you, in cycles of seasons, birth and death. Look at the stars and planets and galaxies in space. Is there no order to it? Of course there is. But there is Chaos, as well.
An acceptance of Chaos is essential to human happiness and joy, to a peaceful life. We have an illusion that it is only through Order that these things come into our lives. But it is a lie, a myth, and a thief. It steals our joy, our happiness, and leaves us exhausted, like a swimmer swimming upstream, or trying to come in against a riptide. And there’s only one end to that story: drowning.
Give up the struggle. Turn around and swim with the current and loose your Fear of Chaos. You might just make it to the beach.