Finding balance in the second half of life

Posts Tagged ‘complexity’

Not So Simple, Really

In Community on April 23, 2012 at 5:57 pm

I’ve about had it with KISS. You know: Keep It Simple, Stupid.

I’ve been fuming about this since I heard an interview on NPR way last fall. The reporter asked a person who’d helped with social media during the uprising in Egypt what advice he had for the Occupy Wall Street folks. “They need to Keep It Simple, Stupid,” he said.

And I thought, but you’ve missed the point. They’re saying it’s not simple. They’re saying we need to learn how to have difficult conversations, to include diversity, to acknowledge disparity. If they were to keep it simple, they’d perpetuate the very things they’re protesting against. It’s simple for one viewpoint to be allowed to dominate as the only reality; that’s what makes dictatorships so efficient. It’s much more difficult to make room in a society—or in a community—for the diversity that our democratic ideals suggest we value.

This KISS phrase haunts me. I object to the “Stupid.” I didn’t allow my kids to call each other “Stupid” (and it was a dictatorship—simple!); in my house, the repercussions for that were as bad as for swearing. I’m not sure we’ll have reasoned discourse with each other until we assume that we’re all smart people. And if you say it’s directed at the speaker herself? Same issue, and then some. If you think you’re stupid, then maybe I’m not so interested in hearing your point of view. If you think you’re stupid, maybe your perspective is not so grounded in a healthy humanity.

And then that “Keep It Simple.” “Keep” implies that we are in control, that it’s up to us to decide whether it’s simple or complicated. It denies the reality that there’s a whole lot going on around us—the weather, the economy, geopolitics, and, that most complicated of all, each of the individuals in each of the communities of which we’re a part—that we don’t control, even if we wish we did.

I can’t quite commit, either, to the notion that simple is better. A hard-boiled egg is simple, and tasty, too. But I made gnocchi with roasted vegetables and spinach pesto, and that was awfully good, too, though hardly simple, in preparation or flavor. My kids made great simple drawings when they first held crayons, but I’m not ready to eschew Van Gogh in their favor.

I like the idea of finding the simplicity beyond complexity. But saying that we must keep it simple sidesteps the idea of all of the work it takes to find that path. Remember that quote from Oliver Wendell Holmes? “I would not give a fig for the simplicity this side of complexity, but I would give my life for the simplicity on the other side of complexity.” That, after all, is how Steve Jobs made money—and changed our technological lives—with Apple products: “You have to work hard to get your thinking clean to make it simple. But it’s worth it in the end because once you get there, you can move mountains.”

It’s taken me some time, but I’ve finally come up with an alternative to propose: Instead of KISS, let’s RICE: Recognize It’s Complicated, Einstein.

First, let’s assume the best of each other and of ourselves. We are smart people, or we can be, if we demand it of ourselves. And our relationships will all be stronger if we assume that other people are pretty smart, too. Maybe they’re not smart in the way that we are or in the way we have come to expect; maybe that’s a good thing. Maybe we have a more accurate view of the world and understanding of what we’re up against—and what we have to celebrate—when we value each other. (I’ll be the first to admit that this isn’t easy. Phyllis Schlafly? Sarah Palin? But maybe “hard” is better than “easy,” as “complex” is richer than “simple.”)

Then, let’s not put ourselves in control of the universe. It takes some effort to peel off those super-hero clothes—they’re lycra, after all, and pretty clingy. But the sooner we acknowledge that we live in communities and in a world that we don’t control, the sooner we can start acting more responsibly. Pretending we’re more influential than we are only makes us frustrated and angry.

And, finally, let’s get comfortable with complexity. Comfort with complexity and ambiguity are understood as signs of the intellectual agility required of leaders, and for good reason. Seeing complexity helps you to be more certain that you’re getting the whole picture; it also helps you adapt as required by things beyond your control. And if you’re not recklessly simplifying, you don’t suffer the unintended consequence of eliminating possibilities.

Sound complicated? Good. RICE, baby.

—Lois Maassen

Advertisements

Looking for Redemption

In Community, Fulfillment on March 1, 2011 at 2:07 am

It was a small thing, but I remember it almost 30 years later: “I hate people who don’t turn off the water when they brush their teeth,” a friend said.

This probably hit me harder than it would strike other people. My family had some odd prohibitions. We weren’t allowed to curse, of course, but “hate” was also really strong language. We could hate tuna noodle casserole—well, as long as we ate it—but “I hate people” was a phrase that would have gotten me sent to my room, no matter how it was completed.

Of course perfectly lovable people have the bad habit of letting the water run while they brush. Surely something careless tooth-brushers might do could redeem them. And I really doubt that my friend meant what he said.

A few weeks ago I read Living Into Hope for a discussion group. Tucked inside, among other stories of reconciliation, is the story of Joan Brown Campbell’s 1999 trip to Kosovo to gain the release of American soldiers who’d been captured by the Yugoslavian military. These are the people who were part of the group, led by Reverent Jesse Jackson: three Serbian Orthodox bishops, a bishop from the Greek Orthodox Church, president of the board of the American Muslim Council, a Los Angeles rabbi, a bishop from the United Methodist Church, a Jesuit scholar and conflict-resolution specialist, and the Quaker director of Mercy Corps. Oh! And Rod Blagojevich.

Rod Blagojevich. Then a congressman from Illinois, more recently former governor, well-known for his hairstyle and his profane and self-serving wire-tapped telephone conversations, the latter eventually leading to his impeachment.

I will admit that I snorted. Probably out loud. So it was a very good thing that my friend Kay said that she loved that he was on this list. “Really?” I said, unable to disguise my incredulity.

“I love that he had a moment of redemption,” Kay said.

Ah. Yes. This is why we need insightful friends: They’ll say the right things to keep us honest and humble.

I’m thinking about this because of the way that groups and organizations are made villains right now. There’s the attraction of simplicity, of course, in seeing things as all good or all bad, all black or all white. But the simplicity of that oppositional view is overwhelmed by the complexity of all the conflict it engenders.

My brother had a biography of Jesse James when we were kids. The opening paragraph made us laugh and laugh. I don’t recall it word for word, of course, but it ran something like this: “Jesse James was a thief without conscience, a heartless torturer, and a vicious murderer. But he loved his mother.”

If I asked Kay, I’m sure she’d say it was a redeeming quality.

–Lois Maassen