FRAME THE CHAOS by Esther Nelson

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.

Categories: General, Rituals

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12 replies

  1. And May we all look for those flowers…. Prayer for the day

    Liked by 1 person

  2. What an incredibly wise essay! I love this perspective of both knowing the larger context but also choosing which part of it to frame so that we can be more effective as well as maintain our own well being; not seeing the two perspectives as in competition or conflict, but being able to participate in both. I think the world has always been chaotic, but it is only our generation that has had a daily front row seat to the chaos worldwide through the internet and the constant news media and I find that it gets to be too much sometimes. When I do I will think of this post and frame that part of what I am seeing that I can do something about. Thanks so much for sharing it!


    • Thanks, Carolyn, for your thoughtful response. I also think that the world has always been chaotic. In the past, it seems as though we had more time to process it all–probably because we weren’t exposed to so much of it all at once. Framing is one tool we can use.


  3. Here here to addressing the plight of animals. As the treatment of women and children go, so goes the treatment of animals. It is disheartening to see discussions of addressing climate change with no mention of the role of factory farming and increased meat consumption by emerging nations.


  4. My niece, Jennifer Mennuti, responded to this blog on FB with this post:

    “Love this. Reminds me of some of the comments I received while advocating for animals on a busy street in Miami. People would sometimes roll their eyes and say “Well what about human problems? What about abortion? Why are you trying to help animals when there are so many human problems?” Meanwhile, they were just strolling around having a leisurely evening not advocating for anything but being angry because I was advocating for animals. 😂🤷‍♀️ I feel like the frame of animal advocacy includes empathy, compassion, plus environmental and health benefits for humans. Even in a frame, solutions and improvements from love and kindness spread to many areas and problems.”


  5. I love this! And Sara’s comments. Framing the Chaos is beautiful language and feels like a critical survival tool. One I imagine our ancestors used of necessity. As we approached the one year anniversary of Covid lockdown in the US, I was increasingly distressed by the number of deaths, and our seeming obliviousness to them. I didn’t know how to release that growing tension. I found a way to create and lead an online interfaith memorial service in my local area. I can’t say it was well attended, but it helped me frame that chaos and reduce my stress.

    FYI, I’ll probably use this idea as a program for my women’s group at some point. I’ll will certainly credit you!

    Thanks for this image.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Frame the chaos indeed! what an essay – absolutely superb – and you are so right though I would not have articulated it – one way to frame chaos is to write – that’s what I do – it’s a survival tool – whenever I can I make an effort to appreciate – like this morning – a stunning sunrise or try to discern the,language of wild turkeys or make a wreath from tipped greens I have gathered not in honor of a holiday I have come to despise but to honor all evergreens….but it the same time I am carrying the awareness of the darkness around us – not the holy darkness of winter but the other of which you speak – framing the chaos no matter how we do it is the way to make life manageable when it isn’t…. I love this essay and shall pass it’s truth on. Thank you!


  7. Thank you, Sara, for reading and processing. Focusing on one thing in midst of chaos doesn’t come easily to me. As you note, “framing the chaos no matter how we do it is the way to make life manageable when it isn’t….”


  8. You are so right – that’s precisely why this article is soooooo important – thank you again – it’s this truth telling that might save us yet…we’ll I’m pushing it but still

    Liked by 1 person


  1. FRAME THE CHAOS by Esther Nelson - selfmadenews

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