We tend to talk about complexity as something “out there”. A wicked problem to solve, a mess to order, a source of overwhelm and confusion to eliminate. And while it is all these things, it is also our home territory. Our habitat. And it IS us.
It is easy to forget that we are complex. We tend to think of ourselves as simple or knowable because of our ability to abstract thought, symbolism, and naming things. Once I’ve applied a label to myself or someone else, whether a job title, gender, race, or name, it is tempting to think I know that person. But can we? Labels tend to be nouns suited to describe inanimate objects; humans are not that … we are more verb than noun, ever becoming.
Biologically, our cells are continually renewing themselves, much like the Ship of Theseus; it’s hard to tell if we are the same organism from one day to the next. We are also not distinct and separate organisms, instead, we are more like entangled symbiotes. We can’t survive without the bacteria and other microorganisms that thrive in various places in our bodies, like in our gut or on our skin. We are never alone. We can’t even define our bodies as separate entities. Our consciousness extends beyond our bodies into the tools and artefacts we’ve created. We are deeply entangled with everything around us.
The title of this post is a bit of a play on words because even something as seemingly simple as walking is complex. Human gait is challenging to recreate in robots. While some robots achieve more speed than humans, they lack fluidity, i.e. they look stiff and unnatural. To add to the beautiful complexity, everyone’s walking style is unique, almost like a fingerprint.
When discussing human complexity, Dave Snowden refers to the three I’s — Intelligence, Intentionality, and multiple Identities. Every action we take is informed by some intention — yet often, these are unconscious. We cannot articulate our own intentions and motivations, never mind those of others. Additionally, we seamlessly transition roles and identities: parent, spouse, executive, friend, consumer, artist … and each has its intentions, ways of showing up and decision-making patterns. The same person can show extreme kindness and unspeakable cruelty. Simple or singular stories can’t define us; we can’t even fully know ourselves.
One of our defining characteristics is our unique ability to create order. We are so good at it that we have become seduced by this order and the control it seemingly provides. Yet, as soon as we interact with our ordered creations, they become complex. It is our complexity that enables us to create order: consciousness, imagination, language, abstract thought, reason, spirituality, ego structures, social skills, and the list goes on. And yet, we continually seek to eliminate or tame this messy complexity to create predictability and feel in control.
When we describe someone or something as messy, it’s not usually meant as a compliment. For most of us, it is a judgement; orderliness is next to Godliness. In his book “The Art of the Clean-Up: Life made neat and tidy”, our urge to fix, order, and control is brilliantly satirised by the artist Ursus Wehrli. His images vividly illustrate how our urge to create order de-animates our world. Nora Bateson uses the analogy of a meadow for the messy complexity of life. A meadow can’t be tidied or tended without being cleared and stripped of its vitality. The same is true of life, yet we keep trying to impose familiar order on everything around us.
Ironically, the complexity and messiness we seek to avoid make us feel most alive. The uncertainty of adventure, the complex emotions when we fall in love with another unpredictable human, and the sense of awe we feel in the presence of beauty. We find meaning in transcendence… in feeling part of something bigger than ourselves. And while we marvel at the universe’s expanse and nature’s beauty, we also destroy that beauty for our greed, comfort and convenience. Retreating into denial and justification when confronted with our destructive tendencies. We are complex and annoyingly perplexing beings.
Why is this important? It is in messiness and uncertainty where novelty emerges. Like the messy middle of a caterpillar’s process to become a butterfly, where the old dissolves into what Bonnitta Roy calls “a wicked mush”, we too need to embrace messiness to create a new, hopefully life-giving order. The complex mess we have created invites us to meet it with imagination and hope. Many people feel despondent, having lost their sense of agency in the face of seemingly insurmountable challenges. Now is not the time to check out and give up. We can meet the complexity with complexity. The world may be a complex mess, but so are we. We can imagine and create new futures and become wayfinders who can see and catalyse new potential. We can be at ease in the messiness and even transform it because we are also beautifully, creatively messy.