Simplicity or Complexity?

Rev. Meredith Garmon

Simplicity? Or Complexity?

Our lives get complex, step by step, because we choose the complexity. We are drawn to it. There’s more there – more going on. We play complex games like chess or go, and study complex subjects like . . . well, every academic field gets more complex as the student advances. Complexity intrigues us. We enjoy figuring it out. It’s stimulating and enriching.

Musically, we prefer complexity. I mean, how long could you listen to the one-finger version of "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star"? Much more interesting and enjoyable are Mozart's more complex variations -- in which he gets progressively more complex.

Of course, we don’t like unnecessary complexity. We don’t like being confused by complications. We like elegance – where all the power of a complex thing is presented in a way that seems to make it simple.
  • Instead of a chalkboard filled with symbols of an enormous equation, Einstein gives us the elegance of e=mc2.
  • When Apple released the first iPod in 2001, the engineering and electronics were quite complex, but the controls presented to the user were very simple – and iPod fans delighted in its elegance. Competing products were cheaper, had more features – voice recorders and FM transmitters – but the iPod won.
We are attracted to elegance: it presents something complex as simple.

And thereby, it lets us treat the complex thing as a component, which can then be linked up to interact with other components to build a whole new level of complexity. Einstein famously said, “everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.” But the reason for making it simple is so we can more easily work with it as a component to build more complexity – more capacity, more ability to do more different things.

And that’s great, right? What’s the problem?

The problem, as Juliet Schor put it, is this:
“Millions of Americans have lost control over the basic rhythm of their daily lives. They work too much, eat too quickly, socialize too little, drive and sit in traffic for too many hours, don’t get enough sleep, and feel harried too much of the time. The details of time scarcity are different across socioeconomic groups, but as a culture we have a shared experience of temporal impoverishment.”
One line from an article in Risk and Insurance magazine last year says a lot:
“In a trend that shows no sign of reversing, American workers are reporting higher levels of stress.”
Do we want complexity with all its interesting, stimulating, power to do more different things? Sure we do.

Do we want simplicity, in the sense of a life that feels in control, manageable, relaxed and gentle? Sure we do.

Take sleep, for example. Life is better when we get enough sleep – and do so consistently – it doesn’t really work to try to catch up on the weekends. On the other hand, most of us would agree that a good life has episodes that are so exciting it keeps us up all night.

Some 17 years ago, LoraKim and I, on our second or third date (depending on what exactly counts as a date), talked until dawn. I was 40 and felt like a kid again. I was not good for much at work the ensuing day – or for the next several days -- but it was so worth it. She and I look back at that night as the moment we knew we wanted to make a life together, with what we had left of it.

I have had projects that were so exciting I worked on them through the night. If that happens very occasionally, we call it excitement, and it’s great. If that happens a lot, we call it stress, and it’s not so good.

We are naturally drawn toward complexity, but sometimes we find we’ve let ourselves be drawn too far. We find that the level of complexity of our life outstrips the level of elegance which makes that complexity manageable.

When life gets – as many of our lives are – too complex, stressed, frenetic – a simpler life begins to look increasingly attractive.

Try looking at it this way: What's more complex, a pile of rocks, or a houseplant? The houseplant has very complex chemical and cellular processes going on as it photosynthesizes sunlight into energy, and as it draws nutrients through its roots. On the other hand, the rocks are many things and the plant is one thing. A random assortment of rocks might have no internal unifying principle making them one existing thing -- so they feel more complicated. What makes the houseplant, for all its complexity, feel simple - even soothing in its simplicity - is its unification.

If life feels like a pile of rocks - or to use a common metaphor - like a lot of balls we're trying to juggle - one strategy for simplicity would be to get rid of a lot of the rocks. Just stop juggling so many discrete and separate balls. Get down to just one simple rock or ball. But that wouldn't satisfy our urge for complexity.

Reducing the balls we're juggling might help. What also helps is that the elements of our lives integrate into a unified, coherent whole. That's the attraction of simplicity: whatever the underlying complexity of its processes, there's an integrity and unity to it. If that could happen, life would make more sense, feel more manageable and easeful -- more simple and elegant. In that way we would achieve both simplicity and complexity.

What is, in contemporary North American life, unintegrated and unintegratable – inherently inelegant -- is how much exploitation and injustice is required to sustain it, how much cruelty out of sight is committed to produce its necessary conveniences, how much resource depletion and environmental destruction it takes. The balance we seek of simplicity and complexity will need to be just and sustainable.

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