Simplifying a Complicated World

The world is not easy to navigate. It’s complex and drains a lot of energy from you. Complicated connections. Pull one thing and a whole lot of others come apart, too.

Lots of tangled wires, all connected.

Sometimes, when we don’t do anything except witness–watch and wait, take notes before acting or jumping to conclusions–we get more information. That step–being a witness instead of a fixer–holds the space for learning.

Choosing to be a fixer means we rush in with an answer, a suggestion, a solution as soon as we sense the connection is complicated. We want to simplify it, cut it apart, all before we are sure what  the problem really is. Because solving problems gives us a shot at being a hero. If we are a witness, and wait for information, well, time could be lost.

It’s a twisted fence, ugly from this view. Complicated, too.

Time doesn’t get lost. We do, but time does not. Time knows exactly where it is. When we stand still, stay calm, witness, take notes, don’t give advice till we know what we are doing, we catch up with time. We gather information. We don’t take on work that isn’t ours to do. We see what is ready to resolve itself without our help.

A simple pattern evolves.

And then, in the sharp shadow of understanding, the information becomes not only clear, but beautiful. Sometimes without our getting involved at all. The shadow of the fence on the sidewalk shows, not the complicated twisted pattern, but a simple light and dark outline of connections.

The other side of complicated is not simple, it’s waiting. So we can learn more.

Quinn McDonald is a creativity coach who learns on her walks every day.

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12 thoughts on “Simplifying a Complicated World

  1. In my day-job, the teachers I support would love me to fix, and when I see some of what they’re up aginst I would dearly love to as well. They sometimes get frustrated when I spend time gathering information and expect them to help analyse it and make achievable goals, however in the process, they gain a deeper, more objective understanding and begin to see the difference between what they can change, what they can influence and what is outside their control. They begin to appreciate what they are already achieving and feel more confident in their skills in the face of some difficult and complex problems.
    Even the most complex situations can be influenced by simple changes in what we do if we make the right one.

  2. A rock is pretty simple. The same rock is also enormously complex. The same goes for everything, from a human to a galaxy, and from one idea to another. This shows that complexity is not a characteristic of any entity. So it must be a characteristic of the observer. A quality of the observation itself.

    One observer can look at a thing today and perceive it as a very complex thing. A problem, for example, might seem extremely complicated. That same observer can look at the same thing at another time and perceive it — the same thing — as simple. Once you’ve solved a problem, it’s simple. It’s a curve, of a sort; from complex to simple.

    When the “thing” is not exactly a problem, but, say, an object, the curve differs. First perception is often “simple”, as in “rocks are simple”. Sometimes the thing draws your attention and you look more and more closely. The closer you look, generally speaking, the more complexity you see. Observe that complexity carefully for a while and it will often start to become simpler as you perceive patterns, structures, models — these are all words we have for the process of “simplification”.

    Thoreau said “…simplify, simplify…”. He was, I think, saying “be true to your nature”, as it’s our nature to simplify, to solve problems, to discern patterns. He also had some things to say about time. Time is a particularly curious quantity, if that’s in fact what it is. We’re not well-equipped to talk about time, partly because while everybody knows exactly what it is, at the same time nobody knows. That seems to me to resonate with the quality of complexity; different qualities of time coexist in much the same way that complexity and simplicity coexist.

    There are no straight lines in nature. Except that when you look more closely, there are. There is nothing straighter than a beam of light. But look even more closely, and there are no straight lines in nature; gravity bends light. Then you look more closely and there are straight lines; the path of a neutrino is straight forever, unperturbed by a whole planet. The point here is that maybe there isn’t any point of irreducibility any more than there’s an end to infinity; the “minim” of Lucretius and Galileo might just be a bookmark; a temporary stopping place. When we’re looking here and now there is (or isn’t) such a thing as a naturally straight line.

    Time is often described (simplified!) as a straight-line flow. But you can’t talk about complexity without an observer, and it doesn’t make sense to characterize a quality like “straightness” without the scale and context of the observation. Apply that to time. One moment can last nearly forever, while an hour can disappear without a trace.

    When navigating the world, leave some time for fishing.

  3. It is often more difficult to wait and observe than to act – no, not act, to react.
    I read a quote from Dr. Seuss just last night: “Sometimes the questions are complicated and the answers are simple.” And sometimes the answers are simple, but difficult to do.

  4. These are really interesting observations. The urge to rush in and fix tangled connections. I know that urge well. Even if the outcome is that the connection is severed – well, at least its clean and not tangled.
    I read something yesterday in a blog post on mindfullness, about letting people be how they are. So easy it sounds, yet we expend so much energy on how people SHOULD be – even if the battle is solely our own internal one. Thank you for such a thought provoking post

    • I have to restrain myself from “fixing” all the time. People can’t benefit from fixing, they either push you away with, “I can’t do that,” “That won’t work for me,” or other shut-downs, or they take your advice, it doesn’t work, and then they blame you. Best to keep yourself working on your own stuff and giving what people want–attention, focus, listening to. It’s really hard though.

      • What about the version where they take your advice and it works?
        Just as I opened this comments section my daughter entered the room with a girls / boys dilemma (she is 12). I truly hope what I answered is useful or at least comforting.

        • Dealing with a child is very different than dealing with another adult. Children look to us for guidance and depend on us for love, consistent discipline, advice, even rules and being told what to do. That’s not being a fixer, that’s being a loving parent. On the other hand, if you give advice and the other person takes it and it works, you may be on the hook for the next time. Always sketchy.

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