Complexity: Our Opportunity and Challenge

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Dear friends,

Complexity is one of humanity’s greatest challenges and opportunities today.

Complexity comes from two Latin roots: com– meaning “with” and plectere meaning “to weave” or “braid.” Something complex is woven or braided together with multiple parts. Complexity isn’t simplistic or monolithic, which literally means “one rock.” Complexity involves multiplicity, which requires being able to recognize distinctions, interconnections, and ambiguities (having two or more interpretations).

Trees are complex: they have many different parts (roots, trunk, branches, leafs, fruit), many different textures (rock-hard, rough, soft, smooth), many different colors (brown, green, yellow, red), many different functions (oxygenation, habitat, shade, fruit, wood, art), and none of it can be seen, experienced, or understood all at once.

Lily and I experienced America’s complexity a few weeks ago.

One of our favorite traditions when we come home away from home — home is complex! — is having breakfast at Big Rock Cafe. The food is delicious and abundant. The restaurant is nestled in a picturesque neighborhood in the beautiful countryside of Illinois. The business is owned by an incredibly kind Albanian family who fled war and poverty to start a new life in America. Our waitress was a Latina woman. The customers we saw included elderly white people, an African American woman, young parents with kids, and us as an interracial couple. Everyone greeted each other with warmth and kindness amidst pandemic protocols.

In so many ways, Big Rock Cafe represents America the Beautiful – opportunity, diversity, hospitality, family, excellence, peace, kindness, a table full of food. Lily and I sat outdoors and expressed our gratitude and delight to return to this humble but amazing family restaurant again in a state and country we love and celebrate.

As I watched American flags waving peacefully in the neighborhood, I felt safe and happy and free.

And yet as we ate our breakfast, Lily and I also talked about America’s centuries of racism and systems of oppression. We talked about the terrible murder of George Floyd and the unbearable pain, anger, and fear of his family and the wider minority American community. We talked about the cities that are on fire and the excruciating tension of rightly resisting injustice in un-ignore-able ways and wrongly destroying our communities. Our hearts were broken, our spirits heavy, our minds spinning with the racism, violence, and death that haunt every inch of this country, including the beautiful neighborhood where we sat.

As I watched American flags waving peacefully in the neighborhood, I felt sick and angry and complicit in injustice.

The truth is, America is both of these things and much more. America is complex.

America is beautiful and ugly. America is a land of amazing opportunity and devastating injustice. America is a society of extraordinary freedom and entrenched oppression. America is a community of welcoming diversity and exclusive homogeneity.

As we ate our breakfast, continuing a beloved tradition, we sat in all of these emotions and the massive spectrums stretched between them: gratitude and condemnation, joy and grief, contentment and anger, renewal and exhaustion, forgiveness and judgment, hope and despair.

And we didn’t arrive at any neat “synthesis” or “balance” or “reconciliation.” It was simply all there, all real, all on the table.

America is complex. Americans are complex. America’s pasts and presents and futures are complex.

Anyone who says “America” is only beautiful and good, much less “great,” is certainly wrong. Anyone who says “America” is only ugly and evil is also certainly wrong. America is all of these things and much more – again, not as some neat “synthesis” or “balance” but as the interwoven braiding of wonders and horrors that it is.

And we know the truth: Complexity is emotionally and intellectually difficult, sometimes seemingly unbearable. Instinctually, we want to only celebrate or condemn. Emotionally, we want to experience only joy or outrage. Intellectually, we want to only affirm or reject. It seems we are wired for either/or’s, for binaries, for a simple yes or no. We have defined patriotism in all-or-nothing ultimatums like “love it or leave it.” Culturally, we see “double-mindedness” as a vice.

But double-mindedness is exactly what we need or rather triple-mindedness, multi-mindedness, complexity-mindedness — an integrated mind that weaves together a multiplicity of values, perspectives, facts, decisions, and judgments. This is the intellectual brilliance of e pluribus unum or “out of many, one,” which is a political philosophy of complex community.

But American life finds itself in an educational crisis. Either you are our religion or the other. Either you vote right or left. Either you are Democrat or Republican.  Either you watch Fox or CNN. Either you are our race or the other. These are what Paul called “the patterns of this world” that seek to “conform” us (Romans 12:1).

We have become incompetents at complexity. Our identity politics have trapped us in simplistic bunkers that don’t reflect reality. For example, it is seemingly obvious that a decent person would aspire to be both rigorously conservative and radically liberal in various sorts of combinations. And yet talking this way strikes many people’s minds as insane and intolerable, triggering perplexity and anger.

Inhabiting and embodying complexity requires virtues that have gone out of style:

  • Humility or embracing one’s earth-bound smallness, incompleteness, and glorious need for others.
  • Patience or embracing one’s time-bound nature which is never fully finished but requires openness, endurance, and evolution.
  • Critical thinking or embracing the fundamental finitude, fragility, and fallibility of all claims to knowledge.
  • Neighbor-love or embracing others as equally valuable to oneself and essential to our shared flourishing, even when we differ and disagree.

But we find ourselves atrophied and ill-practiced in these virtues.

What if America is beautiful and ugly and so much else, and a genuine patriotism requires the emotional, intellectual, and practical expression of all of these dimensions — grief and joy, celebration and condemnation, service and protest?

What if each one of us and each of our cultures is equally complex and worthy of equally complex responses?

We have intellectuals in our tradition who embodied this multi-mindedness, this inhabitation of complexity. In Notes of a Native Son, James Baldwin wrote, “I love America more than any other country in the world, and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually.” Baldwin embraced complexity, the interweaving of love and critique for the sake of improvement.

But it seems that complex thinkers like Baldwin are an endangered species in our society — in our families, our houses of worship, our schools, our media, our government offices.

The opportunity of complexity is that each one of us and our communities are diamonds. We have so many dimensions to explore, to cherish, and to serve in one another. We are each and all inexhaustible continents that merit care, critique, and cultivation.

The challenge of complexity is that we are trained in simplistic labels, laziness of mind, and smallness of heart. Complexity annoys, exhausts, and infuriates our rigid sensibilities.

Whether we like it or not, complexity is the truth and beauty of the human condition. Our greatest challenge and opportunity today is actively learning to embrace and inhabit this complexity. Reading widely, building friendships with people who are different, and praying humbly for our opponents are some of the key practices for cultivating complexity of mind, character, and community.

How are you cultivating complexity in your life and community?

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