Inner chaos begats beauty

Published 3:13 pm Monday, November 22, 2021

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“You must have chaos within you to give birth to a dancing star.” I love this quote by Friedrich Nietzsche. Actually, I love everything Nietzsche wrote.  That makes me something of an anomaly among my clergy peers. Nietzsche wasn’t exactly the world’s biggest fan of Christianity. Rather, he had some amazingly astute criticism for religion in general and Christianity in particular. But I have found within Nietzsche a compatriot in the quest for meaning in a chaotic world. Nietzsche wrote as the influence of Christianity was waning in the Western world. He rightly recognized that, generally speaking, Christianity was formerly the architecture for understanding and interpreting the world in the West, whether or not one was actually a practicing Christian.  But as Christianity’s influence was fading, there arose a crisis at the heart of ‘meaning making’ which drove some thinkers into the cold arms of nihilism, that idea that there isn’t anything meaningful in the world at all.

This wasn’t Nietzsche’s preferred outcome. By recognizing the fading influence of Christianity, he wasn’t suggesting that nihilism was the next best option. Rather, he believed that the collapse of Christianity opened up both the possibility and the need for finding meaning elsewhere.

Which leads me back to his quote about the dancing star. So many of us undergo hardships, trauma, and the kind of pain that leaves us questioning everything we once held dear, everything that once supplied us with the meaning and comfort we so desperately need. Sometimes, though, what once gave us meaning becomes like a dried up well. It sustained us for so long, but it’s time to move on and find another source of life. Ultimately, this kind of chaos can either break us or it can become the catalyst for change. It can render us inert, stunting our growth as a person. Or it can produce something more beautiful than what came before. Like the beauty of stars emerging from the chaos of atoms fusing together under the extreme pressure of space, the experiences that threaten to crush us are also the experiences that threaten to create us, to help us become something different, yet greater, than what came before.

Though it’s human nature to avoid sources of pain or despair, sometimes we simply can’t do anything except face it headlong. How many of you have been shocked in the middle of the night by the death of a loved one? Or received an unexpected yet catastrophic diagnosis from a doctor? Or come home to find that your spouse has decided to leave you for someone else? The list could go on and on, for trauma and chaos come in many forms and wear many masks. The common thread in all these things is that sometimes the chaos happens in our lives and we can’t run from it.  We can’t ignore it, burying it in the back of our mind and hoping we forget about it. Sometimes, things just have to break in order to be put back together again.

Finding meaning on the other side of trauma can be an extremely difficult thing to do made more difficult by journeying alone.  Whether you are religious or not, know that I’m always willing to sit in solidarity with folks in the hardest times of their lives. Get a good therapist, too.  From my own experience, having a good therapist during the most challenging time of my life ensured that the chaos within and without didn’t break me, but set me up to be a luminous dancing star. The same opportunity exists for you, too.

Chris Adams is the rector at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church in Washington.