“Things fall apart. The center cannot hold.”

When William Butler Yeats wrote this in his 1919 poem “The Second Coming,” he did not think he was describing a fundamental law of physics. Yet every spring when I gear up to take on spring cleaning, I am faced with the same question: “How did this garage/basement/home office get in such bad shape?”

The answer: entropy.

What is entropy? Merriam Webster borrows American Mathematician James R. Newman’s definition: “the degradation of the matter and energy in the universe to an ultimate state of inert uniformity. Entropy is the general trend of the universe toward death and disorder.”

Canadian psychologist Steven Pinker uses a sand castle at a beach as a perfect example of entropy. Build a sand castle on the beach shore and come back the next day. It will be gone. If not by little kids knocking it over, the wind, waves and the tide will reduce the sand castle into a small blob. Eventually what remains of the sand castle will return to random sand particles on the beach. It just happens. It will aways happen. Order turns into disorder unless you are actively putting energy into it (building up the structure, adding sand). It’s a law of nature.

Another everyday example is dust. Even if you are not actively sanding a surface, our environment is full of dust. Indoor dust is mainly made up of animal hair, pet dander, textile fibers, paper fibers, human skin cells, human hair, and food particles. Pollen, soil particles, car exhaust make up airborne particles that enter our homes. And I am sure you have noticed that no matter how often one dusts, dust returns. It is never ending. My mother would dust three times a week, but there was still dust at the end of the week because particles are constantly breaking down into smaller particles which in turn become airborne and ta-dah: DUST.

Pinker thinks this everyday entropy is kind of cool. I bet he doesn’t do the dusting in his house. He enjoys that the forces that cause stars to go supernova and for black holes to form are what is causing my car to rust. Things fall apart. And it’s not your fault! It just happens.

Getting back to spring cleaning. Yes, the garage is in a greater mess than when you left it last spring because things are slowly falling apart. The box holding supplies is now weaker due to moisture in the air and perhaps a chipmunk or two nibbling on it. There is way more dirt (and dust) on things. In an especially creative way, mice decided to get into my birdseed and make a nest on top of my car’s engine. They were adding energy into the system but not in the way my mechanic would like.

In my home, my linens and clothing are getting thinner from all the use and washing. Windows that get cleaned seem to gather grime within days. And anyone who has a kitchen knows that clean dishes just get dirty again. Laundry is never ending.

Pinker would say that all of this is the law of nature. We are in tune with the universe! It’s not our fault!

I recommend that we approach our cleaning and sorting as part of a universal flow. It gets clean, but it will get dirty again. And it’s not our fault. We can only slow down the ever-declining matter that is around us. So don’t stress those dog mud spots on the carpet. It’s part of the natural flow. If it doesn’t get done today, so what? Why push against the universe?

Tidy things up and let it go. Enjoy the warm sun. Spend time with things that are important. And remember, we are all part of this wonderful, if messy, plan.

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