Last week, I was thinking about “clarity,” so this week, I thought I’d tackle “complexity.” My first instinct was to begin with a definition, so I dove into Wikipedia which defined complexity this way: “complexity characterizes the behavior of a system or model whose components interact in multiple ways and follow local rules, leading to nonlinearity, randomness, collective dynamics, hierarchy, and emergence.” That was gibberish, way too complex for me. I decided to start elsewhere…
We all know “simple.” Simple is, well, just that: simple. Direct, uncluttered, clear as a mountain stream. By contrast, complexity is a river of doubt that winds its way through a maze, meandering, advancing and retreating, twisting and turning its way forward before doubling back on itself until it creates a whole that is greater than the sum of its separate parts. It’s head-scratching and mind-numbing. We might appreciate simplicity, but we are mystified and awed by complexity.
Take a look at the photo that accompanies this Musing. Just some sheets of canvas and some rigging, right? All we need is a breeze to move us along. But we know it’s not that simple. The task of moving a big wooden boat through water is deceptively complex. It requires not only enough wind and the proper equipment, but also considerable skill, intuition, knowledge, tactics, and ingenuity. Sailing is a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts.
Let’s face it: life itself is complex. There was a time, long ago, when I read The Road Less Traveled by M. Scott Peck. I think I had just entered the weeds of midlife and I was searching for some perspective. Mr. Peck made a lot of sense to me back then; in fact, he still does. If nothing else, he certainly understands the complexity of life; just listen to this: “Abandon the urge to simplify everything, to look for formulas and easy answers, and begin to think multidimensionally, to glory in the mystery and paradoxes of life, not to be dismayed by the multitude of causes and consequences that are inherent in each experience — (but) to appreciate the fact that life is complex.”
We want, maybe even crave, easy answers to knotty problems. Alas; if life were simple, we’d all get it right, but it isn’t and we don’t. Like complexity itself, we turn back on ourselves, relive our mistakes, rue our bad fortune, or wallow like of one Harlow’s lab monkeys in a self-imposed pit of despair. Nothing seems simple, not getting out of bed, not even breathing. Complexity looms over everything like a dark, threatening cloud, one that seems to exclude everything, even light and love. We lose contact with the world and each other. Ashes, ashes, we all fall down…
But I think there’s a way out. If we can accept the fact that we’re surrounded by complexity, then maybe we can separate its multiple strands and weave a simpler cloth. I’m not talking about running away to Walden Pond, but I do think we can choose to minimize the downside of life’s complexity by embracing it, not vilifying it. Despite Gatsby, we really don’t have to beat on, like boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past. Instead, maybe we can choose to sail into tomorrow, pushed along by calm winds and following seas.
I’ll be right back.
Jamie Kirkpatrick is a writer and photographer who lives in Chestertown. His work has appeared in the Washington Post, the Baltimore Sun, the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the Washington College Alumni Magazine, and American Cowboy Magazine. Two collections of his essays (“Musing Right Along” and “I’ll Be Right Back”) are available on Amazon. Jamie’s website is Musingjamie.net.