The Entropy and the Ecstasy

The second law of thermodynamics states that the universe tends toward disorder. I know that’s a gross oversimplification that my physics-geek friends will laugh at, but essentially, the principle states that without the input of energy, a closed system naturally moves from highest level of order to highest level of disorder. The measure of disorder is called entropy.

Humans don’t like disorder. We like stability, routine, a feeling of “normal.” Change really upsets us. Society is one way that we create a sense of normalcy around us. We go to work, feeling down about something, and perhaps unconsciously seek out a coworker who somehow always cheers us up. We have ways of evening our keels that we don’t even think about.

All of that changes when we are forced into isolation and seclusion. We no longer have those stabilizing systems around us which even out the highest highs and lowest lows. In the absence of human interaction, we turn to media, but we tend to gravitate toward things that reinforce our moods. We listen to sad songs when we’re feeling low. We seek out happy rom-com’s when we’re feeling cheerful. Instead of leveling out our swings, these solo endeavors tend to reinforce our feelings.

There’s an expression that’s gaining popularity during this current pandemic lockdown. People are saying we are experiencing “the new normal.” This expression is a bit of an oxymoron, because something normal can’t be novel. What we mean is that our lives have changed, and this change is unsettling, and we haven’t yet adjusted to the current state of our lives. Whether the change will prove to be lasting remains to be seen. Perhaps it depends on how long this thing continues.

Some change is for the better and may persist. Being forced to spend time at home, cooking for ourselves, educating our children, and interacting with our families is certainly not a bad thing. It’s as if Mother Nature put the brakes on the breakneck pace of our modern lives and said, “wait a second, humans, not so fast!” Many people are taking the opportunity for self-improvement: to learn new skills, new languages, develop new hobbies.

And yet other aspects of self-isolation are far less positive. Some people are numbing themselves with drugs and alcohol, or impulsively eating massive quantities of junkfood and binge-watching Netflix. Depression and despair find these conditions fertile territory for spreading their reach. People with anxiety disorders are particularly hard hit, left mulling over a million different worst case scenarios in their minds without the aid of the mood-stabilizing effects of friends and family.

The news certainly doesn’t help alleviate anxieties, even for those not normally prone to panic attacks. Exponential growth of infection rates and deaths is terrifying, as is record-setting levels of unemployment and economic collapse. Even people with steady jobs worry that their next paycheck could be the last. Or worry that their parents or grandparents may catch the virus and be unable to recover. News of the young and otherwise healthy being stricken down by the invisible menace shocks us with the reality that no one is immune, and that death is the inevitable end for all of us someday.

In the face of all of this, what can we do to keep our sanity? How do we create order in a disorderly world? What is the cure for entropy? There’s no magic bullet, no vaccine that will save us from the machinations of our own minds. But one of the simplest things we can do is try to create a new normal. Establish a routine. Don’t give in to entropy and lie around all day in unwashed pajamas eating chips. Unless that’s the routine you desire.

Part of my routine is a nightly walk around the yard just before sunset. I’m blessed with a large ½ acre garden surrounding my upscale shack that is filled with lovely trees, flowers, shrubs and birds. I’ve established this crepuscular survey of my sanctum as my quotidian routine. First, I check the level of water in my rain catchment tanks. Thanks to copious rainfall this year, both are completely full, nearly 10,000 liters of stored rainwater to see me through the dry season. Next, I venture over to the kitchen garden, checking the health of the collards and tomatoes and sweet potatoes growing in rich black cotton soil. Venturing west, I check the state of ripeness of the avocados, mentally preparing guacamole in my mind. From there, I venture south, picking up all and sundry fallen dead sticks and limbs from the eucalyptus trees, fuel for my outdoor chiminea. A contemplative sit by the fire will be another routine. I check on the colony of golden weavers nesting in the acacia of the neighbor’s yard, happily and noisily weaving intricate little clog-shaped nests from grass with nothing but their beaks. A pair of noisy hadaba ibis fly overhead screaming their obnoxious eponymous calls of HA-DA-BA!!!!, causing the landlady’s watch dogs to erupt in an angry barking fit of pique.

My next route has me turning east, venturing across the driveway to check on the orange tree, smelling the new blossoms and debating whether and when to pluck the largest fruits for the table. Unlike the supermarket, oranges don’t necessarily turn orange when ripening on a tree.

Satisfied that all is well within my small kingdom, I turn north again and head for the front porch, to the hammock strung from the beams, for a few minutes of quiet meditation as the sun sets and Venus appears in the western sky like a shining beacon. The stars being to emerge one by one in the blackening sky and the temperature drops. Another day is done on planet earth and somehow, all is still right with the world.

A silly routine, perhaps, meaningful to no one but myself. But it’s mine. It doesn’t matter that I’m not solving poverty or establishing world peace. That’s not the point. It’s calming, settling and familiar. It’s a ritual to mark the sunset, the end of the day and coming of night, as our species has been doing for thousands of years (think Stonehenge).

Find your own rites, your own routines. Do something, anything, other than arguing on Twitter and posting memes about how hard it is to homeschool your children and indulging in conspiracy theories. We will get through this. Humans have weathered tougher storms. Don’t give in to entropy.

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