Chaos Theory Gives Me Hope

Rowboat on the Ocean

I am siting in a rowboat on the surface of the ocean.  A shore and green trees are in sight.

I am only aware of what is happening on the surface.  

Momentous activity is occurring in the depths.


I am not just the person in the rowboat.  I am also the boat, the shore with its greenery, and all the ocean with the the momentous happenings in its depths

(Revised from ISD Journal, May 3, 1995)

Is It Soup Yet?

I am an ingredient in a soup being stirred in a large, iron cauldron over an open fire built on the ground.  Beyond the fire it is dark.  I cannot see who is doing the stirring.

This period of my life has been like the chaos in a stirred soup.  Some parts are going faster than others.  I can’t always grab what I need when I think I need it.  It arrives when I’m not where I can use it the way I want to.

Things I have to take care of I do because the situation is forced on me.  Things get done but not the way I want them to.

Everything is out of control — past, present, and future.

I withdraw from the chaos.  I resist becoming soup (“Is it soup yet?”).  I am afraid.  I want to become soup.  But I’m afraid to become a part of the maelstrom.  I am uncomfortable with conflict.

And yet I know I will become soup!

(Revised from ISD Journal, May 6, 1995)

Both of these images* are about change.  There are two kinds of change.  One kind builds on and elaborates an existing structure — the rowboat on the ocean.  The other requires the existing structure itself to change — the soup stirred in a cauldron.  We have been living in the rowboat world, with a surface calm, while changes have been occurring in the depths outside our conscious awareness.  Those changes are now being experienced as the cauldron world of stirred soup.  And I believe that we “will become soup!”

Different theories have different labels for these two kinds of change.  Piagetian developmentalists call them “assimilation” and “accommodation” (Berk, 1991).  (Think about the shift required in going from math to algebra.)  Cyberneticists label them “first and second order change” (Nichols & Schwartz, 1991).  Idealized systems designers refer to them as “problem solving” and “evolutionary change” or as “continuous and discontinuous change” (Frantz, 1993).

Idealized systems designers design for evolutionary change, and chaos theory describes the processes involved in this kind of change.  Chaos theory is a popular term for a collection of theories that attempt to explain the behavior of complex systems.  Chaos theory has been used with all types of complex systems — the weather, the turbulence of flowing fluids, population fluctuations of different species, and the irregularities of coastlines (Lonie, 1991).  The theory has increasingly been applied to human systems and psychotherapy.

In its barest essentials chaos theory assumes that:

1. Change is the only constant in the universe (Moss, 1994).

2. Everything in the universe is connected to everything else (Chubb, 1990; Lonie, 1991; Moss, 1994).

3. Small causes can produce large effects in complex systems.  (aka, The Butterfly Effect) This is also known as sensitive dependence on initial conditions. (Chubb, 1990; Lonie, 1991).

4. Complex systems are only predictable for the short term and the near future (Chubb, 1990; Lonie, 1991).

5. Disorder and chaos precede the emergence of something new (Lonie, 1991).  The ‘something new’ is usually a higher order of evolution.  De-evolution is rare.

6. Chaos is a localized phenomenon in a larger ordered system (Lonie, 1991).

Chaos Theory gives me hope because:  ‘Something new’ emerges.

Essentially chaos theory asserts that change is normal and ongoing.  Since everything in the universe is connected to everything else, a change in one small thing has the potential to produce widespread change and maybe even affect the whole universe.  Unfortunately the effects of the small change aren’t predictable very far into the future.  There is a period of disorder and chaos before something new can emerge, but these are only a localized condition in a larger, ordered system.  The ‘something new’ is usually a higher order of evolution.  De-evolution is rare.

Chaos Theory gives me hope because:  There is order somewhere.

Evolutionary chaos is a localized phenomenon in a larger ordered system.  There is order somewhere.  If I am the localized area of chaos, there is a larger, ordered system outside me that is stable and calm.  Having faith in the existence of some larger, ordered system will help sustain me in my chaos.  The larger ordered system can be the continuity of the cycles and patterns of my life as it has unfolded since its beginning.  Or it can be some accessible support system such as family and friends, a formal support group, a spiritual community, or a therapist or spiritual director.  It can also be something as intangible and immense as the order of the universe or God.

I believe there are systems within the area of chaos that also retain order and meaning.  My core values and my real self are inner systems that may offer guidance and stability while I am in the midst of the chaos of change.

Cooperating with change like a force of nature.

I can also transcend the anxiety of evolutionary change by cooperating with it like a force of nature and converting it into excitement.  I know from my own experiences that it’s possible to do this.  Surfing the ocean’s waves or shooting a river’s rapids are metaphors for the experience.

Some part of me remains outside the anxiety as an observer while the rest of me deliberately enters into it to be buffeted about and almost drowned and then spilled out onto a sandy shore exhausted and relieved, but changed and at peace with myself.  Perhaps, with practice, all of this can be combined into a way of being that is so much a part of who I am that it won’t require so much thought and effort.

Idealized systems design theorists recognize the pervasiveness of change and seek to shape that change to produce a future that conforms to their own values (Banathy, 1987).  They have developed a variety of strategies for shaping change in smaller systems (Frantz, 1994) with the hope that these methods may one day be applied on a global level (Banathy, 1987).

ISD strategies have several things in common (Frantz, 1994):

1. Recognizing that there is something in the present that is unsatisfactory and could be improved.

2. Creating a vision of a future that is satisfactory instead of trying to fix what is wrong in the present.

3. Examining the designer’s values in general and in regard to the specific focus of the design.

4. Acquiring information and experiences that clarify this vision of the future.

5. Recognizing that idealized systems design is an iterative process with no easily predictable path from beginning to end, and that this process contains periods of chaos and confusion that produce anxiety in the designers.

6. Producing a design that complies with certain standards of completeness and validity and that is practical enough to be attainable.

Values are central to influencing the nature of change.

Chaos theory suggests that changing smaller systems may influence change in larger ones.  Our individual and collective values are central to the nature of the changes we influence.  Core values are what fuel the design process.  It is essential to clarify them as much as possible.  These deeply held values can provide a bridge across the anxiety barrier (Frantz, 1993) to what is outside existing reality.  Core values can be ideals or expressions of ideals held on a deeper level.

Ideals, by their definition of perfection, are already outside existing reality.  From there it is only a small step to dream of bigger things.

Let’s dream of bigger things!

*The images were written as preparation for developing an idealized systems design (ISD) for negotiating the chaos of evolutionary change — my master’s project for California Family Study Center in North Hollywood, California. I will use content from that paper in this and future blogs with revisions to adapt for the intervening decades and to make it more readable and less pedantic. My master’s project was published under the pseudonym, Mary Doherty.  Because ISD papers were often on individual’s lives and contained sensitive, personal information, the school allowed the use of pseudonyms to protect privacy.  The full, academic version of the paper is available in the library at Phillips Graduate Institute, Chatsworth, California.  It was written before CalFam became Phillips and relocated.


Banathy, B. H.  (1987).  The characteristics and acquisition of evolutionary competence.  World Futures, 23, 123-144.

Banathy, B. H.  (1987).  The design of design inquiry in the context of human activity systems.  Proceedings of the 30th Annual Meeting of the Society for General Systems Research, H34-H45.

Berk, L. E.  (1991).  Child development (2nd ed.).  Boston:  Allyn and Bacon.

Chubb, H.  (1990).  Looking at systems as process.  Family Process, Inc., 29, 169-175.

Dougherty, M. A.  (1995)  Unpublished personal notes, Llano, CA.

Frantz, T. G.  (1993).  “Jumping out” of the existing system during design genesis:  Penetrating the anxiety barrier.  In C. Reigeluth, (Ed.), Comprehensive systems design:  A new educational technology.  New York:  Springer-Verlag.

Frantz, T. G.  (1994).  Revised research manual for systems design option (3rd ed.).  North Hollywood, CA:  California Family Study Center.

Lonie, I.  (1991).  Chaos theory:  A new paradigm for psychotherapy.  Australian and New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry, 25, 548-560.

Moss, R.  (1994).  Unpublished class notes from contemporary trends in psychology, Northridge: California State University – Northridge.

Nichols, M. P. & Schwartz, R. C.  (1991).  Family therapy:  Concepts and methods (2nd ed.).

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