The Upside of Entropy

Making the effort to keep chaos at bay.

Every April, I have this idea that my garden will be lovely and tidy. And it is, for a few weeks. I clean up the beds, trim away the old growth, and lay down a layer of mulch. But around the time the last spring bulb fades, the garden is already starting to feel gangly.

Illustration by Julia Yellow

The perennials come on, sprouting up around wilting fountains of leftover daffodil foliage. Boxwoods suddenly look like shaggy teenage boys. Ferns pop up everywhere. Honeysuckle takes off and doesn’t look back. I stroll around, pruning and deadheading, but come late May it’s a daily fight with bindweed and creeping Charlie. By the time the wildish waves of coneflowers and Shasta daisies arrive at the end of June, the whole thing is starting to feel futile. Finally, by late September, I’m ready to surrender to nature. You win again, entropy, I whisper to the rose brambles.

If it was only a matter of my garden, I could handle it. What’s a little mess among roses, after all? Lately, though, I see entropy everywhere. In my sock drawer, in my marriage, and in all that feels intractable or disordered, whether it concerns the 10 pounds I continually gain and lose or the way my children behave in public.

I’ve developed a midlife habit of using complicated concepts from physics to help me navigate my emotional landscape (cue collective eye rolls from physicists everywhere). It’s interesting that I would do this, seeing as how I nearly failed Sister Ethel’s Intro to Physics class in high school. I didn’t care about electrons when I was 15. It wasn’t until around age 35 that I realized they might be important.

Now, I eat up things like dark matter, quantum entanglement, and the uncertainty principle. I watch all those shows aimed at lay people who want to pretend they’re physicists and read books by people like Lisa Randall and Stephen Hawking.

This is all to say that I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the concept of entropy, or the second law of thermodynamics, and what it actually means in our lives. In the popular imagination, entropy just means letting things go to shit. It’s kind of that, but really it’s about the possible states that molecules can take inside a system.

You don’t have to understand the actual entropy equation to understand that entropy happens all the time in every way. Everything moves to disorder, which means that everything moves to more. It’s like the classic Seinfeld scene when Jerry is flying first class and Elaine is stuck in coach. The flight attendant asks him if he wants more of anything, and he says boisterously, “More of everything!” That’s the universe: More of everything!

Because it’s irreversible, once the more has happened, there can no longer be less without some other influence. If glass breaks, it can’t repair itself, but you can superglue it back together. Water sitting at room temperature can’t randomly form into ice, but you can make ice using the freezer. You can intervene in all kinds of ways—and we do every day—but as far as nature is concerned, it’s a series of one-way streets to a common destination: futility.

It’s fair to say that entropy isn’t the cheeriest of notions, but as contradictory as it sounds I’m hoping there is something in it that can smooth the tangles of middlehood.

My husband and I have been having the same fight since we met. It’s about whether or not Thomas Hardy was right in his belief that we’re pawns in a world where our destiny is largely predetermined. While my husband sides with Hardy, I’m in the free will camp.

I’m not kidding when I say we’ve been having the fight since we met. Back in 2002, I noticed this strange guy on only because his screen name was AngelClare34, who I knew was a character from the Hardy novel Tess of the d’Urbervilles (a classic of determinism). I e-mailed him to tell him how misguided he was.

Where my husband tends to think circumstances have the heaviest weight in any situation, I think our choices carry us far. He sees a cruel world that mostly stomps on you. I see a more neutral world that you mostly get to shape. He almost always looks for the worst, while I almost always look for the possibility.

It’s fun to date someone who sees the world so differently than you do. Even having babies with a committed pessimist is fun. They say such ridiculous things, and you look at your baby with its fat rolls and funny noises and just laugh. What a silly thing Daddy is saying! Isn’t he the funniest? Yes he is. The struggle comes when the babies start turning into people, because everything about them evolves while so much about your arguments with your partner stay the same. Thomas Hardy never goes away, even when puberty is in sight.

I’ve been wondering lately what lesson I can glean from entropy to help me through this current life of chaos, which includes two tweens with actual thoughts and personalities and a husband I love very much but who doesn’t love the world nearly as much as I do. It’s a life where any given day starts off full of promise, just like my garden in spring. By lunch, however, the foliage and the moods are drooping. It takes only until midafternoon for someone to start yelling and someone else to yell louder.

The weeds are taking over, and I can’t pull them fast enough. My husband is slamming doors, throwing his arms skyward, and saying Why why why? Why did you do it to me? The kids are sending sarcastic and fatalistic retorts right back his way. Molecules are spilling out all over the place. Everything is moving from order to disorder, like a hillside full of honeysuckle.

Entropy tells me that this process of less becoming more is irreversible without some intervening factor. I don’t want to reverse either my marriage or my children’s existence, so that’s mostly unhelpful. It also tells me that there are infinitely more options for disorder than order. More possibilities for things falling apart than things coming together.

There is another piece, though, something I can see more clearly when I think back over this summer of pruning and tinkering. In June, we took an epic family vacation to San Diego, visiting places like Coronado Beach, Balboa Park, and the San Diego Zoo. Each day started out like a piece of possibility, but inevitably the meltdowns and tempers would emerge by midday (or sometimes while still at breakfast). At one point during our zoo trip, my husband yelled so loudly at our son I think it frightened the lemurs. (My son was being a jerk, which is what 10-year-olds tend to do.) Then my 8-year-old daughter started up, because she hates both yelling and her brother’s jerk-like behavior.

Disorder was all around me—a cranky husband, an annoying son, a whiny daughter (I wasn’t exactly being a saint either)—and the whole trip suddenly felt like a giant mistake. How dumb to think we could be that family enjoying epic family vacations where everyone gets along. I seethed as I walked ahead, refusing to turn around. In fact, pretending I didn’t know them seemed like an excellent strategy.

After a few minutes, we came to the black leopard exhibit. We all stood there sullenly as the leopard pawed at a hunk of raw meat hanging in the tree. She stretched her paw upward and tried to pull the meat down, but it was wedged between the branches. When batting at the meat for several minutes didn’t work, the leopard jumped up in the tree. She walked out on the limb gingerly, testing to see if it would hold her. As the branch bowed, she took one more careful step—just far enough to allow her to reach the meat with her teeth. She grabbed it in one smooth chomp, jumped down from the tree, and ran away like a kid who has gotten away with something. The crowd laughed and cheered, and so did we.

As we walked away, the victorious leopard was all my kids could talk about, and my husband and I joined in. They told the story, and then we retold the story, and then they told the story again. When I flash back to the moment now, I see two things: First, we were all working so hard to make order out of disorder, and second, that effort mattered greatly, because it guided us from our clump of weeds into a patch of newly mulched marigolds.

It’s effort to change a diaper instead of letting baby poop take over. It’s effort to stay married. It’s effort to tell a leopard story 20 times. It’s effort to make my argument about why Thomas Hardy had it wrong, and even more effort to listen to someone else make the opposite argument. It’s all so much work, but that work is what allows us to combine molecules in ways they would never combine themselves naturally. Letting my garden go in September is actually not so hard, because I know the pleasure I get from picking it back up again in April. The effort helps me make meaning of summer.

Entropy is merely a law. It isn’t about us. Not really. Not in the same way the effort to protect and nurture our lives is. That effort is uniquely ours, and no law of physics can claim it.

On with you, creeping Charlie. Rose of Sharon, have at it. I’ll be making ice and telling leopard stories.

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