In Praise Of Complexity

In this world it is easy to find those who praise or who long for simplicity.  Most of us live lives of great and intense complexity, and there is a longing for a simple life, for fewer choices and less stress and more ease.  I am not in the least begrudging these pleasures, for I share the same tendencies as everyone else in terms of having a longing for things that are less complicated.  There are many complications that are less that desirable or good in our lives, some of which we are responsible and some of which are the fault of others whose repercussions and consequences nonetheless spill out into our own lives [1].  Nevertheless, complexity deserves to be praised, and since most people are far more fond of praising its opposite, I would like to spend some time today to point out some of the better points of complexity that I do not think get enough of the praise and credit that they deserve.

For starters, let us look at the dark side of our longings for simplicity.  Our native mistrust for complexity and our desire for simple answers and simple fixes can often be a disastrous one.  Over and over again, for example, one finds that various items advertised as being useful for losing weight end up endangering health and threatening the lives of those who use them, largely because people want simple answers to the sometimes vexing problem of how to keep their weight under control.  Likewise, the desire for simplicity can lead us to make mistakes when it comes to politics by choosing people with superficial charisma and simplistic rhetoric over those who have greater understanding and far better interest in serving the best interests of others.  If we reject a message because it is complex on those grounds alone, then we lose the chance to recognize and deal with and accept the world as it is, which prevents us from being able to respond to it.  A complex reality can only be handled by those who appreciate it in some fullness and respond accordingly.

Complexity has sat least one aspect to which we owe appreciation, and that is the fact that it often serves as a prompt or spur for us to achieve greater simplicity.  Wen complexity gets above a certain comfort level it actively impels us to seek to simplify our lives in some fashion.  This is itself a good thing, for which we should thank complexity, even if the thanks is only the sort of gratitude we wish to show to something we wish to avoid.  Still, that which spurs us to action is something to appreciate, as we are all beings that are often content with the status quo.  It may not be pleasant for us to change, but if we end up in a better place because of our efforts, as is often the case, then those things which encourage us to do something are to be appreciated because to act is to live.  If we owe complexity no more than to consider it a state we wish to avoid, and which motivates us to act in ways that remove the clutter and junk in our lives and in our worlds, that is praise enough.

Yet complexity is more praiseworthy than merely something to avoid.  Often complexity is masked by simplicity.  Those things which appear to be simple can, on alternate viewing, reveal themselves to be deeply complicated.  This is not always a bad thing.  Let us, take for example, the case of the Bible.  Great writing has layers to it, and no book is more layered than the Bible.  At times the Bible itself draws attention to the layers it contains.  The Apostle Paul, for example, writes that the troubled wilderness experience is an example to believers that we should profit from their example, a similar point made via Psalm 95 by the author of Hebrews.  In the story of the Unjust Steward, Jesus Christ makes a simple parable complex by attaching no fewer than four lessons to it, reminding us that even simple parables are complex in reality, a lesson we would do well to remember when we argue about what layers are legitimate in a given exegesis of a given passage.  To a lesser extent, but still present, literature presents us with this complexity in that a shrewd reader can often recognize that irony and wit and misdirection are often used by writers in order to show the deeper layers within a seemingly simple text.

There are yet other types of complexity that we ought to praise, and that is the sort of complexity that demonstrates a certain creative flair.  We find this, for example, in the sort of music or art whose obvious skill and effort with brush strokes and with instrumentation and effects causes us to appreciate the skill of the artists and those who produced the work and forming something so intricate and beautiful.  We see this as well as Rube Goldberg machines, elegant contractions that take an inefficient but glorious approach to doing something that could have been done simply and straightforwardly.  Here the praise is in the obvious creativity of the mind of the designer of the elegant contraption, and not a praise for simplicity and straightforwardness.  Sometimes, and this is important, the indirect approach itself is worthy of praise because of how indirect it can be taken.  Indirect approaches allow people to show a certain flair and that allows us to appreciate who they are, without being offended or put off with how direct they are.  And sometimes that is worthy of more praise than we sometimes realize.

[1] See, for example:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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