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Physics tells us that, from a very fundamental point of view, all properties and processes in this universe trend toward disorder, less energy, chaos. And a key process describing these systems is entropy, the degree of a system’s randomness or disorder. Entropy is a loss of useful energy and, unfortunately, it keeps increasing. This is the natural way of the universe—unless we push back.

This concept of the universe trending toward chaos comes to mind when bad things happen, when order breaks down. Of course, there are days when we feel we’ve changed the world—or at least someone’s small corner of it. And then there are days when we feel if not crushed, at least defeated. “Why even get out of bed?” we think. On those days, we start to wonder if we’re the only ones who care. It’s easy to think no one else does. But, despite these feelings, most of us still set an alarm, get dressed and go do what we’ve always done: See patients, restore sight, take care of our families and our friends. It’s an endless process that really revolves around creating order out of chaos, evoking a more perfect state from a less perfect one, decreasing entropy. 

But why do we feel the need to bring order to things? 

We constantly work to make our lives and the environment around us more orderly. We create reason, logic, forward motion. It’s in our DNA. 

Personally, I’m one of those many people that can’t stand a mess, disorder or unfinished business. I suppose it’s a variation of being obsessive/compulsive, which a lot of ophthalmologists are. “A place for everything and everything in its place,” as they say. Beyond any OCD issues, I think bringing order to chaos is a basic drive of human beings. It’s how we make our mark on the world: Since chaos and disorder are the natural state of things, creating organization is a sign that we were here. (It also feels good.)

At the same time, we have to acknowledge that we’re pushing that rock up the hill time after time with no end in sight, and our achievement is only temporary. If we stopped pushing, as physics peskily reminds us, the universe would, on its own, move toward darkness and disorder—a very depressing realization. But what should we do with the rock, then? Stop pushing it? Just give up? Clearly not, although at times in our lives, and at various times in human history, it’s tough to acknowledge that. Often, it can be hard to see a way forward to a lighter, happier, more ordered life. 

I think it’s probably a truism that, at times, we view our own lives through the lenses of adversity and hopelessness. Certainly, COVID and the current political climate can make us see things that way. But stop for a second and imagine what the world looked like to those living through other challenging times, such as the Second World War. At that time, with the entire world seemingly on fire, one couldn’t imagine a worse chance of staving off entropy—you could practically smell it in the air—yet they did. And we will, as well. Over the many millennia of human history, humans overcame chaos and hopelessness. Terrible times always eventually yielded to better ones, and ultimately led to the advancement of civilization—although at the moment it was probably hard to see exactly how. With that perspective on history, we should all take heart: While we’ll never win the war on entropy, we can create windows of wonder and order—if we only try.