Many years ago, I worked with a computer program that, when booted up, took forever to come online. Instead of a spinning disk, it would flash the same words across the screen, bright green on black: Patience is Required…
There you were, hovering over it in your coat and your commuting shoes, your backpack still on your back, in the dark because you turned the damned computer on even before turning on the lights, because you knew if you delayed powering up even a moment, it would never finish booting on time and the store would open late and you’d lose sales. When you saw Patience is Required, you’d either – depending on how late you already were – swear at the screen and dance around it in impotent anger; or you’d race off to flip the fuses and turn on the lights, divest yourself of coat and pack, slip into your pumps, pin on your name badge, unlock the front door to let in the morning crew, lock it after them… and then return to the computer, note that Patience was still Required, and then swear at the screen and dance around it in impotent rage. (Sometimes then you’d mutter incantations under your breath and flash your hands at the screen like a magician, but that didn’t work either.)
In this world, there are people who try to bring order to the things around them. Why do we do this? Because we grew up in a disordered home? Because we are trying to exert some modicum of control over a life that feels out of control? Because we are OCD, there is something neurological going on?
But, like sheepdogs, who feel so compelled to keep order that they will herd chairs or children when deprived of their flock, we have to do it. As we walk through a disordered room, objects mysteriously reorder themselves, like Mary Poppins’ nursery: blankets fold, pillows fluff, dirty dishes and half-filled cups make their way back to the kitchen, dirty socks find their way to the hamper, the pile of shoes just inside the front door find their mates in neat rows.
We leave things more ordered than we found them.
When we are in meetings – or family dinners – our minds tick over, looking for patterns that will reveal the ordered path or the insight to others’ minds. Is that a clue? We test our theory; no, that didn’t work – how about this?
Given a crazy-ass problem, with many moving parts, we find the path through the moving pieces, the shortcuts, a way to assemble the pieces differently that enables us to bring order, to relieve the team of the chaos that prevents them from spending time doing what they do best, rather than fighting the chaos.
We are champions.
In this world, there are also people who fear order, they find comfort in chaos. Perhaps they grew up in a disordered home and it feels natural to them. Maybe they grew up in a home too ordered, and fear that much order, excessive structure, that they will be asked to compromise their independence, their creativity, and are wary of a slippery slope. Or do they see order as inorganic and worry the imposition of order will disrupt the natural flow of things?
I don’t know.
Sometimes they think they can battle order through a fifth column approach: let me organize it, let me put order to it. They create more and more intricate patterns, overplanning, overthinking, until the whole thing collapses under its weight and they can point to it and announce: see, order didn’t work!
These are the people who never remember to buy toilet paper before it runs out, use up all the kleenex and paper towels and resort to coffee filters. They can’t find their phone, their keys, their power cord because things don’t have a place in their world. But they are perfectly happy to ask you to find the missing objects. Or else they stomp around the house, swearing at the world, while they look for them.
And woe betide you if something breaks, because it won’t be their fault.
It’s never their fault.
Right now, I feel besieged. I feel besieged at work where my team and I are madly rushing towards an impossible deadline, impossible because we don’t have final scope and because the plans that we have spent weeks making keep having to be remade as we bounce from scope to scope, and the order we impose is declared unworkable by those who dislike order.
And meanwhile, my home is in disorder, the disorder of Covid, because we never leave. The screen fell out of the kitchen window during the December blizzard and we couldn’t figure out how to get it back in and my husband fears letting the building maintenance people into the apartment, so the screen lives in our bathtub. In the morning, we take it out so that we can shower, then put it back. Clutter has taken over our breakfast bar – an area that I usually keep clear is now piled high with cookbooks and with the baking pans and storage containers that I usually keep in the cabinets over the fridge or over the microwave. But that necessitates using the stepladder which seems a ridiculous extra step when we might take it into our heads to whip up a batch of cookies or a cheesecake at any moment. And with my husband’s work laptop, as opposed to his personal laptop which he uses to do crossword puzzles, or the old Mac he keeps to edit photos or do video calls with family. Our couch is surrounded by a wriggling nest of power and network cords.
And don’t even get me started on the political chaos, the unreasoned arguments stemming from redistricting that divides and groups voters together in a way that enables people who hate government to get elected so that they can prove that government doesn’t work by sabotaging it it.
Or the chaos of the Coronavirus which – just as we think we’ve got it figured out – evolves to become more contagious, making it even more dangerous to go to the grocery store, just as we are running low on toilet paper. Or the chaos of the response to the Coronavirus, the denial of those who refuse to admit that nature can conquer man, that we all have to work together; the disorder of the response, the lack of will to implement a testing strategy, or a plan to distribute the vaccine so that, just as it seems things are starting to move, we run out and progress stops dead again.
And the people losing control. Shooting random strangers, hitting Rick Moranis over the head, jumping off of buildings with their 10-year old daughters in their arms, hurling themselves off The Vessel – an object designed for people to leap off of, if I ever saw one. Driving onto the sidewalk and over children. Chaos is rising. I need to stop reading the news.
Like Rif Raf, I feel, I’ve got to keep control.
The energy is rising. It wakes me up out of a sound sleep. Sends me running from my bed. Or sends me diving into a book, where the words march in orderly rows across the page, a story builds then resolves itself.
Where chaos, all in one shining moment, reveals that it, too, has a pattern. You just have to understand why the killer is stalking the mystery, what their motive is, for Poirot or Marple to reveal the solution. Where the hero just has to understand the villain’s weakness, the flaw in their perfect plan, to take advantage of it and escape to win. Where, despite all the obstacles strewn in the path of love, the lovers unite and live happily ever after. Or where historians or scientists or journalists look back on events and demonstrate that all these random events are really part of a larger pattern, a pattern that makes sense, once you look at them with distance.
I spent most of my holiday break lying in bed, reading, avoiding the chaos of the world.
Now I’m trying to take action. I will walk, I tell myself, except that it’s raining and I mustn’t risk a chill. I will eat better, I tell myself, except that I’m exhausted from the stress of fruitless discussions and bug-eyed from staring at tiny numbers on the screen for hours on end. And thinking about combining ingredients into a cohesive, healthy dinner is beyond me. So we eat scrambled eggs or toasted cheese sandwiches because I’m too drained to grill the sandwiches.
I need a vacation. A vacation from work. A vacation from my apartment. A vacation from the constant drone of the television. I need to go somewhere different, somewhere surrounded by nature. Somewhere that I can eat different food and talk to people who I’ve never met before. I need to walk until I’m exhausted and then sit and watch the quiet water or the roaring waves.
And I can’t.
Because it’s not safe to travel.
I tell myself to be patient. The work situation will resolve itself eventually, one way or another. I can wash dishes and put baking equipment away. Grandpa Joe will deal with the political situation and increase the structure around the vaccine rollout and testing. And then people will regain hope, stop attacking their neighbors or jumping off of tall things.
My husband has received one dose and is scheduled for a second, and then he plans to go back to his office (mask on), which will reduce some of the cord chaos and impose silence on the TV. It will also allow me, when things get too stressful at work, to take a break and restore order to the clutter in the living room which will then remain ordered until he comes home from work.
Sometimes, imposing even a little order to something that has nothing to do with the disorder that is bothering you, makes you feel better.
Until then, patience is required, as the computer used to tell me during the interminable boot up.
Patience is required.