Entropy: It’s Not What It Used To Be*

In thermodynamics, entropy is the measure of how things go from order to disorder. Its application is far broader, however, applying to life in general. For those of us, like me, who strive to maintain order, it is the enemy.

My ability to do what I do, to function, depends on my maintaining order. In a world of chaos, it’s a constant battle. No man is an island, and so almost every function relies to some greater or lesser extent on interactions with others. In order to prepare an affidavit, a person must take or return my phone call, do so in time for me to get their words on paper in both an accurate and comprehensible manner, make sure I’ve captured their thoughts properly, get it executed and file and serve the document.  If the person decides that he would rather go to the beach than speak with me, but will get back to me later, the entire scheme can fall apart. A call back on Monday at 11 doesn’t help when the papers are due Monday at 9.

When I explain how their conduct affected my ability to do my job, the response is one of two things: “Oh, I didn’t realize,” or “you should have told me that before.”  Of course, I can’t tell you anything if you don’t take or return my call. “Oh.”

It’s a fragile set up at best. Some people are reliable in a way that allows other to count on them, to plan ahead and not find themselves in a quagmire from which they can’t emerge.  These are people who make other people’s lives go smoothly. They tend to be somewhere along the anal compulsive spectrum, which sounds pretty nasty but is actually a really good thing for organized people, especially lawyers.

Others are chaos personified, off in the thousand directions without any thought whatsoever to the consequences for themselves or those who rely on them. Their alternative to order is their tolerance of disorder. It’s not that they don’t eventually come to realize what they failed to accomplish because of their chaotic approach to responsibility, but that they can live with themselves that way.

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
The courage to change the things I can,
And wisdom to know the difference.
Then again, it has nothing to do with God. It has to do with us. We make choices. If you’re inclined to believe in a deity, then know that the deity imbued you with the power to make wise or foolish choices, and left it to you to decide which.

You can choose a ready guide in some celestial voice.
If you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice.
You can choose from phantom fears and kindness that can kill;
I will choose a path that’s clear-
I will choose Free Will.
When I’m asked how I manage to get as much done in a day as I do, the answer is order. I organize. I plan ahead. I try to anticipate the chaos I will confront in the course of trying to get things done so that I can accommodate it as much as possible, and will give myself enough room so that someone else’s choice of disorder won’t completely undermine what I need to accomplish.

The other day, a massive failure to accomplish a task upon which I relied was explained to me as the result of unforeseen circumstances. It wasn’t quite true. Getting hit by a truck is an unforeseen circumstances. Making overly optimistic promises which you chose not to keep when time or interest gets tight is not an unforeseen circumstances. It’s life.

There is a difference between explanations and excuses.  When something doesn’t go as intended, which happens despite best efforts and planning, there is either an explanation or it was just a screw-up. If the former, then there is a reason. If there is no reason, then it’s a screw-up.  Yes, screw-ups happen. No, they don’t have to. Are they your fault? Yes. That’s why we call them screw-ups.

Excuses are a different animal. Excuses are explanations that shift the fault onto the party who caused the problem.  Most are imperfect, in that fault is born by more than one party, often all parties, who either failed to do what they should have, or said they would, as well as parties who failed to anticipate or accommodate the chaos wrought by others involved. See how that works?  We knew that other people screw-up, and so we assume the responsibility of inserting that potential in our equation of order. When we organize our world, we do so in anticipation of entropy.

It’s all a choice. Frankly, the failure to realize this, to conduct oneself as an island of order in a world tending toward chaos, to both live an ordered life and recognize that others don’t or won’t, is a choice. If you want to do what you can to do better, be more responsible, keep your promises to others despite reliance on those who infuse their chaos into your world, you can. But you must make the choice.

It’s hard to fight entropy, but those who do keep the world running.

* The title is brazenly stolen from Buzzfeed’s 21 Jokes Only Nerds Will Understand.

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