Struggling to impose order on chaos

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Many years ago, a friendly dispute arose in a government office where I worked.

On one side of the debate were the tidy people whose desks were spotless except for the day’s pertinent documents. Neatly framed photos of family members accented well-chosen objects d’art. These denizens of neatness didn’t leave dusting solely to the after-hours cleaners. A fresh note pad was always at the ready.

In opposition were the folks with stacks of paper and files perched precariously on the edge of their desks. Scraps of paper revealed hastily scrawled phone numbers, and a half-filled cup of cold coffee hid among the clutter. Yellowed “Far Side” cartoons shared the wall haphazardly with inspirational quotes and yesterday’s grocery list.

These differences provoked a good-natured discussion among us of how diverse approaches spark creativity and productivity.

Which people are most productive with the most inventiveness, imagination and originality? The neat-at-all-costs type or the fly by the seat of your pants folks? Was it neatnik versus slob? Or rigidity versus spontaneity?

I know lots of creative people in Anchorage — bead artists, seamstresses, woodworkers, teachers, social justice provocateurs — you know who you are.

Does your creative output stem from routine and well-ordered regularity? Or do you veer off in unexpected tangents based on mood and inspiration?

In the September issue of Rolling Stone magazine, a writer interviewing Stephen Colbert quotes Flaubert: “Be regular and orderly in your life so you may be violent and original in your work.” Colbert liked that quote.

I like the quote, too, because I’ve always aspired to be tidier and more organized than I am. I would like to be the even-keeled type who honors a strict routine and thereby achieves all kinds of great stuff. In the parlance of Ignatian spirituality, I do not like that my days often swing wildly between spiritual consolation and spiritual desolation, and that I am called to negotiate this erratic path which sometimes foils my attempts to be “regular and orderly.”

Then I think of Jesus. If he aspired to being “regular and orderly,” think how frustrated he must often have been. There were the Pharisees constantly shadowing him, challenging him about rules or trying to catch him in some misstatement.

Or imagine the constant onslaught of people begging to be healed from every conceivable ill. Imagine the interruptions, the demoniacs appearing out of caves calling his name, or people waking him up to calm storms while he’s trying to sleep. If Jesus had a desk, he would never have had time to dust it.

Was Jesus “violent and original” in his work? “Violent” doesn’t fit, but the synonyms “powerful” and “passionate” fit well. So, even if regularity and orderliness evaded him at times, his was nonetheless a life lived with passion and originality — a life lived with purpose and intent, yet open to new people and possibilities each day.

No doubt some personality test could tell us which “type” we are. But no matter our bent, we can’t dictate how life flows, and often our lives seem like a struggle to impose structure on chaos.

So maybe we should take our cue from Jesus, whose prayer life seems to have provided his structure.

Be flexible in the service of prioritizing doing good for others. As you aim for orderliness, smile as it disintegrates around you. Simplify your life, and then, perhaps early in the morning “while it was still dark,” slip off, like Jesus, “to a deserted place and pray there.” (Mark 1:35)

The writer is formerly from Anchorage. She now lives in Omaha, Neb.


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