Life is Complicated

26 Dec 2020 · 7 min read

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Red tennis shoes pointing towards one straight line and one tangled line

Is It Really So?

Yes. We have this truth from no less an authority than Sir Raymond Douglas Davies, testifying back in 1971:

Gotta stand and face it:
Life is so complicated.

Even earlier, back in 1920, H. L. Mencken offered us this comforting assurance:

There is always an easy solution to every human problem – neat, plausible and wrong.

I was thinking about life's complications recently when I heard Barack Obama's insightful interview with Brené Brown. The whole podcast episode is well worth a listen, but just to cherry pick a few relevant nuggets:

When I actually took my theories and started testing them in neighborhoods on the South Side of Chicago, suddenly I started realizing: Oh, people are complicated, and situations are complicated….

If there's one thing I wanted to communicate in this book, it's that the higher up you go in politics – but I think this is true of any organization – the more you will be confronted with challenges, problems, issues that do not yield a perfect answer.

[But] just because something doesn't have a perfect answer, doesn't mean it doesn't have a better answer. So my interest in rigorous debate, good analysis, good facts… is so at the end of the day you can make better decisions, even though you know they're not going to be perfect.

I do think that the benefit I got from my academic training… was still having respect for the fact that, as complicated as the world is, there are still tools we have, and the capacity to reason things out, that we ignore at our peril.

So there you have a definitive consensus from cultural icons of three generations. Yes. Life is indeed complicated.

Does It Have to Be This Way?

At some point you might suspect that these people are making things sound more complicated than they really are. I mean, you know how these elites are: if they didn't make everything so darned complicated, then all these high-priced experts would be out of a job, wouldn't they!

But there's a very good reason why life is so complicated, and has to be this way, and it's called… evolution.

To start with, science tells us that life here on earth is not being guided by any divine intelligence, and so we are not on our way to fulfilling some grand design. No, all forms of life here on earth – ourselves included – were produced by a blind watchmaker, as the saying goes, and so there is no ultimate truth, no great plan… we're all just muddling through one day at a time, one generation at a time, trying to adapt as best we can to whatever reality is throwing at us this week. In other words, there is no perfect state to which we can aspire. And so, as Obama tells us, there are no perfect answers, and it often takes a lot of hard work just to figure out which answer might be a bit less bad than the others.

But the complications brought about by evolution don't stop there: they run even deeper. Because the innate mechanisms of evolution present us with a series of delicate balancing acts for which there are no definitive solutions.

Competition vs. Cooperation

Most of us understand very well that evolution involves competition. One species competes against another, individuals within a species compete against others, and there are winners and losers. And we see the same sort of competition playing out in our cultural evolution as well, with competition between nations, and between corporations, and between individuals.

But of course evolution also exhibits many signs of cooperation. Groups of chickens practicing peaceful coexistence lay more eggs than super chickens striving to dominate other chickens. The cells within our bodies cooperate with each other in order to form the more perfect union represented by each human being. And individuals and departments within corporations cooperate with each other in order to deliver products and services that are superior to those produced by other companies.

But who decides when we should cooperate, and with whom, vs. when we should compete, and against whom? And on what basis are the decisions made? When should states operate independently, essentially in competition with one another, and when should they cooperate as part of a united federation?

As noted above… it's complicated.

Retention vs. Innovation

Two other required elements for evolution are retention of what works, along with trials of new things. Without change, nothing would ever evolve. But if you change everything all the time, then odds are that nothing will work right ever again.

Again, this balancing act is required for genetic evolution, but equally important for cultural evolution.

And so we have the constant question of when should we innovate, and when should we stick with the tried and true? And when we try something new, which new thing should we attempt?

Again, there are no silver bullets, no magic answers. If in doubt about this, just ask BlackBerry and Kodak.

Simplicity vs. Complexity

Is it better to use simple designs or complex ones? Better to be a large complex life form with a sophisticated culture, or a simple coronavirus? Better to be a large integrated organization or a small, nimble startup? Better to compete with a few complex, expensive fighter jets, or a large fleet of small simple drones? Better to fix a flight control problem with a simple software fix, or to design a whole new airframe?

Well, once again… it's complicated.

And So…?

Alright, so life is complicated, and it's going to stay that way. At this point you might be wondering: “Other than ruining my day, what exactly was your point with all this?”

Just this: when we try to over-simplify issues and people and positions, we almost always cause ourselves problems.

To put it another way: extremist positions at either end of a spectrum almost always yield worse outcomes than more nuanced positions somewhere in the middle.

Is it better for each individual to have absolute liberty to do whatever they want, or better for us all to be assimilated into a mindless, conforming society?

Well, probably better to have something in between those two extremes, even if that does tend to… make things more complicated.

Is it better to follow a religion whose leaders tell us exactly what to think or do in any situation, or better to believe in an unfeeling mechanical cosmos devoid of all meaning?

Well… perhaps it might be better to believe something in between those two extremes.

Is it better to have a society run by capitalists in charge of big business, or socialists in charge of big government?

Well, once again… I know by now you see this coming… the answers are complicated.

Now, of course, this sort of message doesn't sell well in today's media landscape. We all would like a quick fix of simple certainty, and no matter where we turn today, we can find an army of pushers waiting to feed our habit, even giving the stuff away for free, just to keep us hooked.

And so we've grown used to consuming short spurts of alleged facts mixed in with provocatively worded eyeball-grabbing opinions. And just about all of these proclamations – no matter the source, no matter their political slant – try to boil down complex people and situations and issues into simple conclusions.

And so it's good to be reminded from time to time that people and situations are rarely as simple as we would like them to be, and not usually as straightforward as we are often told they are.

Of course big meaty books are one way to avoid short, simple, misleading answers. And novels in particular allow us to explore in depth all the intricate twists and turns of complex characters and situations.

Here's a final quotation taken from such a work, the novel Little Fires Everywhere, by Celeste Ng:

In Pauline and Mal's house, nothing was simple. In her parents' house, things had been good or bad, right or wrong, useful or wasteful. There had been nothing in between. Here, she found, everything had nuance; everything had an unrevealed side or unexplored depths. Everything was worth looking at more closely.

And so I will end with my wish for all of us: may you see the people and situations around you with new eyes, and with greater nuance, and find unexplored depths in everyday places and familiar faces.

And may you fully appreciate your complicated lives.


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