Every now and then, I spend a month or so in Louisville to spend as much time as possible with my favorite little people (my daughter and her brother). Almost immediately after I arrived, I started cleaning my daughter's mother's house. I cleaned it not because it's dirty, but because it's what I do, everywhere I go. Once I clean, I can relax, and not until.
So it is that, nearly everywhere I go, I clean. It's something of a running joke among friends, in fact. Hey, Rob. My house is a mess. Can you come visit?
I've always been interested in why I do this. Most people would simply enjoy their time. As I write this, I'm staring out of a window into an autumn that only Kentucky can produce. The well-kept streets, the symmetrical houses, the quaint cul-de-sacs absorb the crispness of the air, the red and yellow and brown tint of the landscape, and everything is calm and quiet and perfect. Why not simply grab some Shel Silverstein, throw my daughter on my lap, and read until winter sets in? I've always chalked the compulsion to clean up to a mild form of OCD, but the thought that something deeper, something just out of my grasp, was at the heart of this behavior nagged me.
For some reason, the answer came to me on Thursday morning.
I bring order to chaos.
Of course, that's a fairly dramatic way to think about cleaning, but that tendency spreads its wings far wider. It's in everything I do.
I write to bring order to chaos. "All art is a kind of subconscious madness expressed in terms of sanity," George Jean Nathan said. That's not a new sentiment; ask nearly any writer and they'll tell you that writing is an attempt —albeit a vain one—to condense the intricate and complex workings of the outer world into a sensible whole, to install edges where there are none. The world doesn't make sense- all is boundless. In a work of fiction, though, or a painting, or any work of art, a world is created, and, not incidentally, it's a world that can be made sense of . Novels begin messily, and (usually) end neatly.
Writing, then, is bringing order to chaos (which explains my compulsion to write).
Taking the concept further: I've always had an aversion to unnecessary drama. (And not in that I say I hate drama outwardly, then secretly sow the seeds of discontent to stir up whatever drama I can, so that I can feel and fix it kind of way). I've always, too, been able to see situations from a distance and dispassionately diagnose them. As a result, most friends and family come to me when they need help or advice with a situation, and, frankly, I enjoy this little exercise. By helping someone else with their problems, I am, yet again, bringing order to chaos. What was once a swirling vortex of hurt feelings, confusion, and resentment gets laid out on a table, to be examined and diagnosed. When it's put back together again, all involved parties understand a bit better the inner workings of what we just saw. They return, better equipped and more orderly, and so do I, for having created that order.
Why does any of this matter? Why dwell on this revelation? Because it, in part, defines who I am, and how I should proceed. One of my favorite bad analogies is the person as a wedding cake- it requires a solid base layer as foundation if any of it is to work without toppling over. It's crucial to know which parts of yourself are immutable.
There's been so much talk in the tech world of lifehacking, of the quantifiable self, and it's an admirable way to look at life. Changing bad habits and reinforcing good ones is an irrefutably better way to live than complacence about one's own shortcomings. To be effective, though, it's necessary to understand those things about yourself that can be changed, and which are simply part of your nature (there are still things an app can't tell you). Otherwise, the quantifiable self is an exercise in futility. I know, now, that if any of my actions are motivated by a desire to bring order to chaos, I will succeed, because that desire is so embedded in my very nature that it's what comprises what I love, and what I'm good at. Anything that lies outside of that mission is somewhat extraneous, and subject to change.
It's one of the great pleasures of growing older, getting to know yourself- being comfortable in your own skin, as they say. That can't really happen, though, if you never take the time to look at your own skin to find out what it's made of, what are the scars and what are the blemishes. Scars must be loved, because they are forever, and if they are not loved, then they are an annoyance at best, and an obstacle at worst. Blemishes can be swept away through the right combination of intent and action.
Either you know your scars or you are defined by them. I highly recommend the former.