I have been fascinated by complexity** for 20 years. Complexity is a term that elicits pretty diverse responses. For some (like me) it evokes interest and curiosity. For many, it describes something to be avoided, simplified, or preferably ignored.
Yes, being in complexity can feel messy, overwhelming, and confusing. But it is also beautiful and life-giving. For those of us who value order and “tidiness”, it may seem like something that needs to be avoided or eradicated. The problem is that complexity is intricately woven into almost every aspect of our everyday lives. We may not call it complexity — we call it parenting, or running a business, or relating to extended family … but we are all navigating complexity, all the time.
My friend Jennifer Garvey Berger posted this beautiful piece by Kathryn Schulz earlier today. It immediately prompted this reflection as it is one of the most beautiful descriptions of everyday complexity I have come across.
Shultz explores what she calls the “fundamental AND-ness” of life through the lens of her experience of the pandemic.
Schulz starts by reflecting on the quantity and range of loss that we have suffered in this pandemic, “The coronavirus has killed almost a million people in this country and more than five and a half million worldwide, while simultaneously taking a staggering range of other things from us as well — everything from a small business to a sense of smell, physical contact to mental health, Friday evenings with friends to smiling at strangers on a crowded subway car. How are we supposed to live with not only such a quantity but such a range of loss?”
She then mentions something that I have noticed as well: our tendency to negate our feelings. To split loss into big vs small, or good vs bad and then calibrate or measure our own pain on some imaginary scale. I am sure you have all heard something similar to the following statements:
“I am feeling isolated and alone, BUT I can’t complain; I am one of the lucky ones; I haven’t lost anyone close to me.”
“I am overwhelmed by the amount of work and the loss of human connection at work, BUT at least I still have a job.”
“I feel hopeless — I no longer dream about the future. BUT there are others so much worse off than me.”
BUT is a word that negates anything that came before it. We collectively deny our feelings — almost a form of survivor guilt — and my sense is this is becoming toxic and contributing to a growing mental health crisis. Complexity is ambiguous, and our emotional and social lives are complex. We can’t force our feelings into neat categories — not for long anyway.
Schulz writes, “We are almost always facing more than one thing at once and therefore feeling more than one thing at once. We feel sympathy together with self-pity, good fortune together with frustration, gratitude together with grief. …All these are examples of what I think of as the fundamental and-ness of life, the way it requires us to experience so many contradictory or unrelated things all at once. There’s no getting away from this and-ness because it is built into the basic facts of our existence. The world we inhabit is full of splendor and misery, our fellow humans are brilliant and inspiring and selfish and vicious, and we ourselves are hopelessly motley, full of mixed motives and mixed feelings.”
While the pandemic has amplified these contradictions and ambiguities, our lives have always been characterised by them. I remember being excited to finish school, yet scared and sad as well. We can love our parents and be extremely frustrated with them simultaneously. Many of us have experienced the bitter-sweet experience of being pregnant, or welcoming a new life into the world, just as someone else we love is dying.
An essential part of what we have started to call Complexity Fitness is holding ambiguity. I have been trying to be more intentional about practicing to hold the ambiguity. To accept that I can be content, sad, discouraged, grateful, excited, and overwhelmed simultaneously. Staying with the messiness is exhausting. Splitting and compartmentalising require much less energy, although I’ve also learned that the long-term consequences of that defense mechanism are pretty dire.
To hold the AND position and stay with the messiness requires me to practice better self-care. To pre-emptively guard against depletion. What works for me to reconnect with the beauty and restorative qualities of complexity:
- The natural ebb and flow of the ocean.
- The sense of connectedness in a forest.
- The awe-inspiring greatness of the night sky.
- The joy of laughing with friends.
- The freedom of doing something just for fun, to play.
These are the things I never made time for in the past, the ones I put off for one day when I have time. While I have always known this on some level, I am now realising, in an embodied sense, that these are the things that really matter in complexity.
** if you want to know more about what complexity is, this is a good place to start https://medium.com/@sonjablignaut/7-differences-between-complex-and-complicated-fa44e0844606