The Chaos Of Now

Chaos does not show up unannounced and knock loudly at your door like police at a predawn raid. It sneaks up on you gradually. That bruise on your toe seems unimportant, so you do nothing, and it turns out to be cancer, and then you lose your leg. The apartment complex built yards from the ocean has structural flaws, and the concrete degrades, and the problem is discussed without any meaningful action taken, and one night, in eleven seconds, the building collapses.

Chaos is nothing new. Humankind has always experienced disruption caused by food shortages and natural disasters, tribal and military conflicts, pandemics, and economic implosions. We need look no further back than the two world wars of the last century to recognize that much of history is a chronicle of uncertainty, instability, and fear.

The Chaos Of Now

And yet in the last two decades, the sense of chaos has escalated, with society experiencing what can best be described as free-floating anxiety and desolation as we face both existential threats (climate change, COVID-19, societal discord) and, for many, a deeply felt sense of dissatisfaction, unease, and even hopelessness. That anxiety and desolation make the current chaos feel different from that experienced during earlier periods of strife. And it seems inescapable because it isn’t tied to any one event or to a broad social movement. Nor are we receiving blows one at a time. … A person struggling with the pandemic may be further endangered by an immigration status that makes them reluctant to seek medical care. A family fleeing a natural disaster may face racism when attempting to settle in a new spot.


Perhaps more than anything else, the current sense of chaos and discontent stems from a pervasive feeling that, as a society, we are moving in the wrong direction. A 2021 Pew Research survey conducted across seventeen advanced economies found that 64 percent of respondents believe their children will be worse off financially than their own generation. In only two markets—Singapore and Sweden—did an optimistic view win out. Where once the future promised progress, now it is cause for angst.

Compare predictions made at the turn of the twentieth century with what we anticipated in 2000. In 1900, a writer named Thomas F. Anderson interviewed several experts to anticipate what the city of Boston might look like in the year 2000. Some of his predictions, published in The Boston Globe, were prescient, including wireless telegraphy, cooled liquid air (the forerunner of air conditioning), and nighttime baseball games played under the lights. Others—home deliveries via pneumatic tubes, moving sidewalks, the tides of Boston Harbor furnishing the city with heat and light— didn’t come to pass. What is worth noting about these predictions is their optimism and steadfast faith that better times lay ahead. Anderson foresaw a Boston so pristine that the word slum would be removed from local dictionaries. He believed that universal education would uncover genius among the lower classes and that public health would benefit from the absence of soot and smoke.

Contrast Anderson’s rosy predictions with those made in the 1990s about 2020. USA Today put together a collection of these forecasts, and while some were hopeful—rising life expectancy, hydrogen-fueled cars able to operate for months on a single fill-up— the majority were not. Experts predicted the death of books, the loss of privacy, the extension of the standard retirement age to seventy, a rise in global surface temperatures, and heart disease and depression replacing lower respiratory infections and diarrheal diseases as the leading causes of sickness, disability, and death.


This premillennial gloom and doom was in keeping with the zeitgeist of Y2K. Rather than dream of a brighter future, we anticipated crises and calamities aided and abetted by new and unfamiliar technologies.

A critical reason we perceive a higher degree of chaos today is that we don’t feel up to the challenge of meeting current and future crises. When we’re unable to draw strength from a belief in a better tomorrow, how can we find the fortitude to manage existential challenges? What is the point in fighting for change when we have little to no hope that it will make a difference?

This pervasive sense of pessimism is new. To a worrying degree, we wallow in uncertainty and fear—taking tentative steps in what we think might be a better direction but without the drive that comes from confidence. How can we fix this?

One thing we can count on by 2038: intensified and systematic efforts to instill in the younger generation the critical-thinking skills, agility, and resilience that will enable them to discern and combat misinformation and jump from crisis to crisis without succumbing to anxiety or depression. Already, we are seeing programs emerging for use in classrooms and at home. GoZen! offers tools to help parents “raise resilient, happy, inspired, thriving children.” Road to Resilience, launched by the Mayo Clinic in 2020, is a six-week virtual program to help youth combat the effects of adverse childhood experiences. Also in 2020, Janet Borland, an assistant professor at the University of Hong Kong, published Earthquake Children, a book that considers how the aftermath of the Great Kanto Earthquake in 1923 helped to build modern Japan’s infrastructure of resilience and its people’s ability to maintain composure in times of emergency.

We will also see simplicity and “happy time” emerge as luxury items as people seek to escape the chaos. Think: new variations on sensory-deprivation tanks, in-home salt therapy rooms, and sound-healing spas in suburban strip malls. How much would you be willing to pay to leave the chaos behind for sixty minutes?