Some people are likely to enjoy the first part of this and loathe (or be bewildered by) the second part; others are likely to find the first part boring and the second part a fun thought experiment. I considered posting them as two separate articles, but later thought better of it. Not that I had any choice in the matter.
Everyone wants things to be simple. So I am delighted to tell you that many of the most important issues and questions we face during our bewildered lives are not as complicated as they might seem.
Unfortunately, the reason they are not complicated is that they are complex. There is an important difference. Complicated things, such as cars, computers, and anything you buy from Ikea, can be more-or-less completely understood (except for the Ikea pictographs) and analyzed. They can therefore, with some work, some intelligent deduction, and appropriate intervention, be made, improved, fixed, or renewed. They also quickly break down (except for those $9 plastic-coated side tables from Ikea), and end up thrown away.
By contrast, complex things, such as bodies, ecosystems, and social groups, cannot be fully understood, and some (like jellyfish, cults, climate systems and zombie fan-fiction writers) cannot really be understood at all. The more we study them, the more we realize how little we understand them. They defy effective analysis — there are just too many variables, and oversimplifying their complexity and treating them as merely complicated can lead to huge, tragic, unforeseeable consequences. You can never reliably predict their behaviour.
What you can do is to appreciate them for what they are, and try to at least get a rough sense of why they are the way they are, and what their presence means for you. Complex things evolve slowly, and sometimes randomly, but they usually have arrived at the way they are for a good reason. Most indigenous humans and wild creatures know this, and they appreciate and accept the way things are. What they do is explore or “probe” them, to try intuitively to make sense of why they are this way. If I eat this food, or this medicine, will it apparently make me feel better or worse? If we add this to our (admittedly simplistic and imprecise) climate change model, does it better approximate what has happened and is happening? If I “hold space” in a group to allow everyone to have their say and feel safe and respected for doing so, will that help the group move forward on their current issue, or just waste valuable time? Dealing with complex situations (as distinct from chaotic ones) revolves around paying attention, not around planning and implementing.
Responses to complexity entail adaptations and workarounds, not “fixes” — the best that we can hope for is that they seem to help, for now. While solutions can solve complicated problems, only adaptations and workarounds can help us acclimate to complex predicaments. (To acclimate, or acclimatize, to a situation means to adjust oneself to something different or unforeseen; for most of our time on earth most humans were nomadic and learned to acclimate to different “climates” and to “weather” the difficulties they presented — definitely a good skill to have!)
Predicaments, by their nature, cannot be solved. (Likewise, if you try to “acclimate to” a complicated problem, say, by constantly adding oil to your car’s engine because it always reads empty, that is not a solution.)
This is ancient knowledge. Watch birds deal with unexpected weather, or listen to how indigenous peoples deal with what we would call “crime”, or study how ecosystems (and many other complex systems) evolve to work around obstacles and self-perpetuate, and you’ll appreciate that most of what we’re unhappy with, most of what’s seemingly not working the way it should, cannot be “fixed”, and that when we accept, appreciate, adapt to and work around — ie acclimate to — the predicaments we face, we’re way further ahead.
So the good news is that, since most of the major challenges we face personally, culturally and globally in the modern world are complex predicaments and not complicated problems, we need not waste time, energy or peace of mind trying to understand and solve them. This will, unfortunately, be bad news to political megalomaniacs, “true path” spiritual gurus, economists of every stripe, obscenely overpaid business “leaders”, most consultants, and many others rewarded for allegedly fixing complex things (or telling you how to fix them). Happily for them, they are too busy and self-preoccupied to learn about complexity.
I promised you a “top 10” list, and you’re probably getting impatient. So here’s the list. Here are ten things — mostly life challenges — that are less complicated than they seem — because they’re complex.
- Becoming a better person: If you are going to become, in your own judgement and/or the judgement of others, a better person, that will happen despite any volition on “your” part. There is, fortunately, no “you” — what appears to be a separate person with choice and free will is a mirage, a hallucination, a dis-ease, an unfortunate and accidental evolutionary misstep that emerged along with large, underutilized brains. This has nothing to do with predestination or fate. There is an apparent character that “you” think you inhabit and control, but what that character apparently does has nothing to do with “you” — the brain just conveniently rationalizes the character’s apparent actions after the fact in a way that lets “you” believe those actions were “your” choice and decision. So go easy on your self — the character in whose apparent watery bag of organs you believe you reside will do what it will do. You should assume no responsibility, and take no credit or blame for any of it. In fact, “your” presence most likely interferes with the character doing its best. Nothing for “you” to do, really. Easy, huh?
- Deciding what to do with your life: From the above, it should be clear that “you” do not and will never make any such decision. The character you believe you inhabit will do what it will do, every moment, every day. If you want you can be pleased (but not proud) when the decisions seem ameliorative. You should not blame your self when they appear in hindsight disastrous. You should also know that humans are not meant to “work”. “Work” is an abomination that human selves, trying (with the hellish best of intentions) to “fix” complex predicaments (like overpopulation, and ice age resource scarcity) with complicated “solutions”, developed to try to mechanize human behaviour, suffering from a collective madness that they controlled the characters they believed they inhabited and had to “improve” them. Like all creatures, humans evolved and thrived as wild beings, adapting to scarcity, not trying to “fix” it. Be delighted if the human you think you inhabit refuses to “work”. But don’t claim it was “your” idea.
- Living a healthy life: Before they were made neurotic by selves like “you” (and “me”) human creatures lived extremely healthy lives completely connected with and part of all life on earth. Prehistoric humans had no dental diseases, no immune system diseases (which most modern chronic diseases are) — in fact few diseases at all until they reached geriatric age. They suffered no famines, since famines result mainly from overpopulation and epidemic diseases of monoculture crops. Most likely cause of death for them was being eaten, which happened at any time of life, depending on fortune and evasive capacity. There’s evidence they didn’t stress about this. It just happened — they and it were all part of what happened, and there was no fear of death, no judgement of right or wrong, just acceptance of the reality of the wondrous complexity of their lives. (The next leading cause of prehistoric death was accident, not disease.) Where humans evolved, a huge variety of whole plant foods were abundant, and for a million years human bodies evolved to thrive on that diet. It’s now becoming clear that while we live on average longer lives than ever before, we spend a larger proportion of our lives ill with one disease or another than ever before. This is not natural, evolutionarily sensible, or healthy. I could suggest that the key to a healthy life is eating a varied whole-plant based diet, getting vigorous regular exercise, avoiding accident risks, avoiding the number one disease trigger — work-related stress (good luck with that), and avoiding the modern medical system (now the number three killer in the US). But that would suggest that “you” have some say over the what the character you still foolishly claim to inhabit and control, will do. And “you” do not. That character will eat, do, work, medicate, and everything else regardless of what “you” think. And despite the fact that many of these actions will likely be unhealthy, the only one that will die is “you”! Without all us “you’s”, there is no death — just the wonder of all that happens, timelessly. Wouldn’t it be great if all the selves on earth would just die now, so that no “one” would have to go on suffering and worrying about all these things for no reason? But unfortunately “we” (“our” selves) don’t even have the ability to make that decision; “we” don’t really exist. We are figments of our own recursive minds. Such a shame — all that anxiety for no purpose or end. Perhaps we need a support group.
- Finding love, and the right partners (for life, work, crime etc): You’re probably catching on by now, and will guess correctly that I’m going to say that “you” have nothing to do with whether the right partners are found or not. If “you” are constantly amazed at how seeming clueless idiots somehow get along with each other idyllically while the character you (really, still?) think “you” control is on their eighth serious relationship and it’s fucking hard work, you should not be. All your earnest efforts are for nought. It’s all serendipity, chemistry, accident, the game being played through all the characters. Sorry to offend any Buddhists, but there is no “right” (or “wrong”) anything. There is only what happens. Like the Howard Jones song says, “no one is to blame”.
- Reducing injustice (inequality, corruption, abuse, discrimination etc): The word justice comes from the same root as the word judgement — the Latin ius meaning “righteous, true and perfect”. The word only has meaning to “you” and “me” and all the selves of the world, and we’re just living in a dream. In the real world there is no one, there is no judgement, there is only everything that, fearlessly and eternally, is. It is the real truth. So why are “we” continually outraged at the endless atrocities committed by human creatures, largely against other human creatures? Because “we” think things could be otherwise. Because we believe in time, and in progress over time. None of this is true, but “we” remain outraged. This is perhaps the hardest thing for “us” to accept. Like all creatures we evolved to love and collaborate with each other, to “fit” as well as possible into the whole of Gaia. How can we accept that the human experiment is going so wrong, and that it is not anyone’s fault, and cannot be fixed? “We” cannot. Some truths are too much for the self to bear.
UnderstandingAppreciating how the world really works: If you get the explanation above about the difference between the complicated and the complex, this is slightly less impossible than the previous five items. Almost everything of consequence is complex. Most real problems are relatively trivial, as long as you follow the instructions from Ikea. Complex predicaments are everywhere, and they’re insoluble, unknowable, and unpredictable. We can only appreciate them (grasp the little piece of the whole that we can really fathom, and accept the vast amount we can never know), explore, make a little sense of them, and adapt ourselves, working around what cannot be changed. And we can wonder — we can try to get a glimpse, a memory what it was like to see the world as a young child, before its self emerged and began to identify as a separate being, apart from (and endangered by) everything around it. Only with eyes of wonder can we appreciate, and perhaps self-lessness might then happen.
- Solving “wicked” problems (climate change, healthcare crisis, education crisis, natural disaster and pandemic disease preparation, addiction, species loss and environmental degradation and waste, nuclear weapons, “terrorism”, peak oil, the limits to growth etc): Yep, “wicked” is a judgement, and none of these are problems; they’re all predicaments. We cannot solve them. At a local level, the complex predicament “appreciate, explore, make sense, adapt” approach can yield some short term, apparently positive results, and that’s the best we can achieve. Moving beyond hope that these predicaments can be “solved” on any significant scale can move us to accept and start to appreciate why things are the way they are. As misnamed “wicked problem” experts (all three words are misnomers!) will tell you, the process of exploration and sense-making allows understanding of the predicament and possible adaptations and workarounds to “make the best of” the local situation, for now. That doesn’t rule out the value (at least psychologically) of activist actions like (safely) turning off the tar sands pipeline valves, or even (safely) dismantling small dams, if you know what you’re doing (those specific tasks are problems). But it does acknowledge that these actions, no matter how admirable, won’t be more than delaying actions — they won’t “solve” the larger predicament. If the character you inhabit has a propensity for this type of activity, don’t “you” get in the way. As if you could anyway.
- Deciding where to live and whether or not to have children: You get it, right? “You” can have your opinion, and agonize over it, but it will change nothing. Next.
- Dealing with emotional illness: So “you” have realized that everyone seems to be struggling, as if some emotionally destabilizing illness has infected just about everyone on the planet. I have called this “civilization disease” — it’s the ongoing sense of unhappiness, hopelessness and dread that things are getting inexorably worse and no one is paying attention. What is to be done? My advice on this hasn’t changed since I wrote about ten things to do when you’re feeling blue, and later ten things to do when you’re feeling hopeless, starting with the advice from The Once and Future King (it’s the only thing that has ever worked for “me”):
- “The best thing for being sad,” replied Merlyn, beginning to puff and blow, “is to learn something. That is the only thing that never fails. You may grow old and trembling in your anatomies, you may lie awake at night listening to the disorder of your veins, you may miss your only love, you may see the world about you devastated by evil lunatics, or know your honour trampled in the sewers of baser minds. There is only one thing for it then–to learn. Learn why the world wags and what wags it. That is the only thing which the mind can never exhaust, never alienate, never be tortured by, never fear or distrust, and never dream of regretting. Learning is the thing for you. Look at what a lot of things there are to learn–pure science, the only purity there is. You can learn astronomy in a lifetime, natural history in three, literature in six. And then, after you have exhausted a milliard lifetimes in biology and medicine and theocriticism and geography and history and economics–why, you can start to make a cartwheel out of the appropriate wood, or spend fifty years learning to begin to learn to beat your adversary at fencing. After that you can start again on mathematics, until is it is time to learn to plough.”
- Learning to love your self: Haaah! Here’s where I paint myself into a corner. Your “self” is an illusion, but it is nevertheless complex. And while it isn’t real, it is still “part” (no other English way to say it though it’s not quite right) of all-there-is, all of which is real and unreal and eternal and miraculous and unknowable, and all those other words that don’t even get close to it. Nevertheless. Dealing with anything complex, including your miserable, bewildered self, begins with attention, acceptance and appreciation. Appreciating something is allowing yourself to see its value as ever greater. How do you appreciate something that causes you such suffering? Marvel at its complexity, at how our brain was able to — incredibly — invent an identity that recognized itself! Recognize that while it is impotent, and while its efforts are hopeless and futile, it is really doing its best to try to make this strange creature full of watery organs do things that will improve the lives not only of the creature but of all the other creatures on the planet! How un-self-ish is that! “You” cannot know what is real, or how things really are or really work, but you can get to know your self better. You’re on a first name basis. The more aware “you” are of your self, the more “you” know about yourself — what good intentions motivate you, how hard you’re trying, how hard you’re working, how desperately you want the best for everyone and everything — how can you possibly not love such a person?
They don’t call this blog How to Save the World for nothing. Hope you’ve found this fun, and maybe even a little insightful. More coming up over the next few days.
Butterfly clip-art CC0 from the good folks at pixabay.com — love these guys for the service they provide! Pretentious scribbled words on the butterfly are mine.