I’m willing to give pretty good odds that almost anyone reading this has by now come across either the actual poem from which I took the words that make up the title of this post, or has at least seen parts of it quoted elsewhere. It’s a terrifically well-known — and simply terrific — poem (“The Second Coming”) written by William Butler Yeats in the wake of World War I, and legions of creative types who came along after Yeats have borrowed some of his ominous lines to add dark shadings to their own works.
A couple of those lines also capture a notion that I think about quite a bit. Here are those lines:
“Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold…”
With apologies to any readers here who are more well-versed in science than I am, what I wanted to discuss a bit today is my own layperson’s notion of…entropy.
As Wikipedia has it, “Entropy is a measure of the number of specific ways in which a system may be arranged, often taken to be a measure of disorder. The entropy of an isolated system never decreases, because isolated systems spontaneously evolve towards thermodynamic equilibrium, which is the state of maximum entropy” (emphasis is mine, not Wikipedia’s).
Or, in other words, unless I totally misunderstand this…our universe has a tendency toward disorder. Or in other, other words (thank you, Mr. Yeats…)…things fall apart.
So think about that concept for a moment: if things in this universe have that tendency toward disorder and toward falling apart, then pushing something toward disorder — picking it apart — is going to be easier on the whole than building something up or imposing order will be. The universe is already working toward the former and against the latter, right…?
Example: imagine you have a double handful of a child’s building blocks. Imagine you’re standing there holding them in the middle of an otherwise empty room…and then you drop them, all at once…
How do you think they’ll land? Will they conspire with the forces of collision and gravity to arrange themselves into a geometrically perfect cube shape, or a pyramid or a stepped ziggurat…? You know what? Unless you live near one of those haunted spots where balls roll uphill, or it’s always cold regardless of the surrounding climate, then this is highly unlikely. I mean, if you decide to experiment, and spontaneous neatness does happen for you, please let me know, but for now, I’m thoroughly doubtful about this particular outcome.
Why? Because neat arrangements like the cube and the pyramid and the ziggurat are orderly, and in this universe, they therefore require conscious applications of will and design and energy in order to bring them about. In the absence of such conscious applications, the universe’s tendency toward disorder will prevail…resulting in a messy, random scatter of those same blocks across the floor, pretty much ten times out of every ten.
And I feel it’s not inaccurate to say that the same principles apply to not just physical objects and arrangements thereof in our universe, but also to intangible items and arrangements, too. Our figurative and metaphorical “stuff” also tends toward disorder and chaos, and wringing order out of sets of them is just plain difficult. It requires energy, and planning, and dedication. And even if we succeed in imposing order for a time, we’ll usually be called upon to tend to the results regularly, as decay can still set in.
So what I’m talking about here would be something like — as just one example — observing the rushing rivers of sound that we spend our lives immersed in, and then crafting some of the eddies and cascades into…a song. A symphony. A musical construct with order and purpose, with dynamics and design. It’s easy to tear something like that down (how quick so many of us are to arrive at: “This song/band/album sucks…”). Far more difficult, though, to swim against our universe’s downstream rush toward chaos, and to build something up — to praise and champion something, especially in the face of adversity, or above all, to create.
I feel that it’s very easy to strike a negative, hyper-critical pose in these modern, hipsterish times, and to verbally tear down everything around us. It’s easy to bash and criticize things — the universe will help along efforts to reduce things to rubble. It’s much more difficult — and therefore maybe much more impressive, and even honorable — to work in the opposite direction, so as to support things, and to build them up…to be constructive rather than destructive. Cultivating relationships, creating works of art, crafting structures both material and conceptual — this may very well be where greatness lies within this entropic existence of ours.
So that’s my thought for the day: consider ways in which you might turn a random scatter of blocks into a beautiful, useful, and/or orderly arrangement in the face of entropy.
Things fall apart…unless you refuse to let them…