No matter how much we may want absolute control over our own lives and destiny, most of us realize that’s just not possible. Life itself is chaotic—both on a global and individual level. War, famine, drought, earthquakes, tsunamis, pandemics, poverty, sickness, ignorance, disability, divorce, and ultimately death comes calling for everybody living on planet Earth—a planet which will no doubt eventually die as well.
How do we maneuver through such dire straits? Can we make sense of and find meaning in our day-to-day chaotic existence both as members of individual families/communities and as global citizens? Perhaps so, however, it’s impossible to tackle the tumult all at once. Hence, the title of this essay—“Frame the Chaos.”
Thanks to my former colleague Dr. Cliff Edwards for this phrase, gleaned from his reading of Gilles Deleuze, French philosopher (1925-1995). “Chaos is defined not so much by its disorder as by the infinite speed with which every form taking shape in it vanishes. It is a void that is not nothingness but a virtual, containing all possible.”
When we frame a painting or photograph, we set apart what we put within the boundary of the frame. We can then focus on what we see. When we build a house, we frame the structure early on in order to shape a comfortable and manageable living space for ourselves. Framing the chaos enables us to focus on a discreet portion of the mayhem and then move forward in search of possibilities within the framed upheaval. What can we find and create within that more manageable area?
One of the joys of this FAR (Feminism and Religion) blog is seeing how various contributors frame a subject they address. Writing itself is a way to frame our chaos. Through the act of writing, we are able to lay out what we see, sit with it, contemplate it, and hopefully find a modicum of meaning—something I find essential for a peaceful and productive life.
Many contributors to this space—Molly Remer and Sara Wright come to mind—write about rituals they’ve created and perform. Sometimes rituals are handed down through our institutions. Some people may find “tried and true” (antiquated?) rituals meaningful. Many do not. When a ritual becomes a habit for its own sake, it’s lost its effectiveness.
During my church-going days, I participated in worship as laid out in the Book of Common Prayer, appreciating its magnificent language and syntax. However, the text often left me feeling empty. No doubt others—especially those living on the margins of society—felt unsatisfied as well. Every week we prayed to a God imaged as a male monarch, “We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under thy Table.” That patriarchal image bleeds into what’s called “secular society.” Women (and other disenfranchised souls) have been eating the crumbs from our patriarchal social system for eons. Some theologians (mostly women) have worked (and continue to work) on creating new rituals that hold specific meaning for women as well as others who, either ideologically or practically, don’t inhabit the upper echelons of society.
A young relative of mine recently posted on Facebook that she had miscarried after eight weeks of pregnancy. She and her husband, for a brief period of time, eagerly looked forward to welcoming new life. They are now mourning their loss. How to cope? They named their loss, Clay, and then acquired an ornament to commemorate the occasion. It read: “Carried for a moment. Loved for a lifetime.” It was the first decoration they placed on the Christmas tree this year. They framed their chaos and through that framing, helped to ease and make some sense of their loss.
When I counseled women wanting to terminate their pregnancies, a 17-year-old, accompanied by her Native American mother, presented for the procedure. The 17-year-old was self-confident and had no doubt that she wanted to abort her pregnancy. Her mother wanted to welcome a grandchild into the world. When Mom realized her daughter had made up her mind to terminate, she accepted that without judgment, only asking to take home the products of conception. Mom wanted to bury “whatever it is” (her words) to commemorate the loss. She started to plan the ceremony to take place later in the day. Frame the chaos.
I’m distressed by a lot of things—the abuse of animals being high on that list. Factory farms are horrendous places where animals suffer horrible injustices and pain before ending up on our dinner plates. Although animal rescue organizations make a huge difference, there is much work yet to be done to insure that all animals are cared for. Visionary people have dedicated their lives to saving abused animals. My niece, Jennifer Mennuti, is one such person who tirelessly teaches about and models compassionate living on planet Earth through her vegan activism and animal rescue.
So, how can we frame this chaos? In addition to donating money to organizations that work to save animals from cruelty and death, we can focus on one (or a handful) of animals. I like the advertising I’ve seen at some animal shelters: “Adopting a shelter cat or dog won’t change the world, however, it will change the world for that one animal.” If we stop eating meat—even cut down on our consumption of animal flesh—the demand for meat (and hence cruel factory farming) will eventually decrease and hopefully end. There are some organizations that encourage you to adopt a cow, a sheep, a turkey, or a horse. The organizations happily give you regular updates on “your” animal.
Kobayashi Issa (小林 一茶, 1763 – 1828) was a Japanese poet and lay Buddhist priest known for his haiku poems and journals. The following haiku demonstrates one way Issa framed his chaotic world:
In this world of ours
As we cross the roof of hell
Let’s search for flowers
Frame the chaos. Find the possibilities in the virtual void.
BIO Esther Nelson is a registered nurse who worked for several years in Obstetrics and Psychiatry, but not simultaneously. She returned to school (Virginia Commonwealth University, Richmond, Virginia) when her children were in college and liked it well enough to stay on as an adjunct professor. For twenty-two years, she taught courses on Human Spirituality, Global Ethics, Christian-Muslim Relations, Women in the Abrahamic Faiths, and Women in Islam. She is the co-author (with Nasr Abu Zaid) of Voice of An Exile: Reflections on Islam and the co-author (with Kristen Swenson) of What is Religious Studies? : A Journey of Inquiry. She recently retired from teaching.