This is the first essay I’ve written in almost a year, and I seem to have a backlog of words. Bear with me.
I teach a facinating group of young teens and preteens how to write using resources other than their own opinions and previous knowledge. Together, we wrangle with essays written by the pros and debate the credibility and reliability of sources online and in print, and they write essays using those sources to support their well-considered thesis statements. However, teens and preteens glue themselves to an opinion tighter than Thomas the Tank Engine stickers adhere to oak book shelves, and this tenacity to ideas interferes with anything close to critical thinking or clear-headed writing. They seek for what confirms their bias and often discard what seems to be against it.
So I’ve challenged this group of young, intelligent idealists with blinders with an assignment I’ve called “It’s Complicated.” Rather than starting with their stance on an issue, they start with the thesis that a particular idea is just that — complicated. Technology’s effect on learning. The ethics of driverless cars. Animal testing. The voting age. Nuclear power. Their task is to present the complexity with an open mind while grappling with ideas on both sides. After that, and only after that, they can discuss — briefly — their opinion.
Why bother? Because our world is complicated. Painfully, heart-searingly complicated. That seems to hardly be a contentious statement to anyone reading or listening to reliable news sources. Take Syria, for example. Tease out who started what and when, and whose actions affect whom, and just who is called good or bad or somewhere in between. Reach back five years. Then reach back further – a decade, five decades, a century, five centuries. When did all this really start?
Then take a single possible outcome — one way this situation could turn out (good luck with that step) — and look forward five years. Don’t just look at ISIS and Syria when you slide your eyes along that mental timeline. Look at Turkey. And Russia. And just about all of the Middle East. Don’t leave out Nigeria. Oh, and peek in on Europe. Plus the US. What do you see?
Now look at your social media feed. Perhaps you have a rather homogenous feed that serves as an echo chamber of your thoughts. If your feed is like mine (and mine is embarrassingly politically one-sided), you’ll rarely see complexity as an issue. Last week, you might have seen maps of the states in different colors, red usually pointing its finger at states declaring they’ll take no Syrian refugees because the timeline they mentally drew leads to political risks for them and perhaps some honest fear of other as well. You might have seen debate about attention to Paris when the Beirut massacre just days earlier failed to fill the New York Times front page — and most social media feeds — for a week and counting. And the pictures you saw were likely those of Syrian refugees, women and children in most, afraid for their lives and willing to risk possible death in escape rather than what likely seems certain death in staying.
Your social media feed may be more balanced than mine, still filled with maps of red states, but this time with lines of applause about protecting America by refusing those same Syrian refugees. Debate may have centered around how to protect the U.S. and which candidate takes the strongest stance on immigration. Those feeds, too had pictures of refugees, but more perhaps of armed young men, willing to lie and coerce just to take the lives of Americans, with captions reading, “It only takes one.”
What you likely won’t see is anyone saying this: “It’s complicated.” And that’s too bad for all of us.
It is complicated. It’s complicated because it involves people — with all their fears and passions and desires and needs — and people are messy. We have irrational thoughts, faulty memories, and little tolerance for what we can’t quickly categorize and judge. We struggle to sit with the tangled knot of ISIS, Iraq, Iran, Syria, Lebanon, Turkey, Russia, France, and so forth, teasing out each thread while realizing that each tug pulls the knot tighter while fraying our understanding. We sit with the moment only — in a theater in France or in a plane out of Egypt — and then cling to the emotion it brings. We miss, in our fear, in our hate, and even in our love, the complexity when we are quick to label and judge.
Don’t get me wrong. ISIS is a horrific entity, and killing civilians to prove your might and morals is abhorrent no matter what your aim. And, at least in my understanding of compassion, caring for the orphan and stranger, is right. In my Catholic years, that was what Jesus said to do. As a Unitarian Universalist, it’s treating humans with dignity. But the work of dismantling terror organizations so new ones don’t pop up in their absence is complicated. And bringing in those running from terror into a population riddled with those who fear them because of race, religion, and the obscene acts of their oppressors is also complicated. We’re foolish to think it isn’t.
Life in any sort of community — from the smallest community of family, to life in a country full of refugees and immigrants, to a planet with over seven billion other beings — is complicated. Even when we feel completely in step with the most familiar of “other,” we can quickly run into conflicts that come from two different minds thinking different thoughts, fears and hopes and desires and passions discordantly clanging to the floor. Sometimes we manage these with grace and perspective, but often we clash.
Life with other human beings is complicated. When we embrace that, we’re partway through to a solution. Simply saying together, “It’s complicated,” we start down the road to cooperation and progress, even if only in our agreement that complicated problems don’t have simple solutions. When we look at ISIS and Syria and all that and say, “That’s a mess. It scares me,” or look our estranged loved one and say, “This is complicated, and I’m afraid,” we’ve made a crucial step to not only solving the complicated problem but healing our deepest divides.
Why does admitting and appreciating complexity matter? First, it acknowledges that few problems are solved by a single-step algorithm, like the “You cut, I choose” rule for two siblings sharing one donut. Our relationship problems are almost always multifactoral, and if relationships between two people bonded by love and blood can stumble over as seemingly little stuff as dirty socks or curfews, then it stands to reason that all the big stuff is exponentially more prone to problems taking more than rock, paper, scissors to solve. It reminds us that yelling “yes!” and “no!” across the internet or the Thanksgiving dinner table is worse than futile — it divides us when we most need to think together.
Admitting complexity also means acceding that the other side has valid points. Ouch. Aren’t they just generally wrong? Many problems are not simple and thus not simply solved — multiple perspectives can help. Many problems are like that knot, fraying yet bound, and teasing out a thread on one side may tighten the opposite edge of the knot. When we’re willing to see that tugging our sacred thread may make part of the knot more unwieldy, we’re starting to appreciate that complex problems aren’t solved with a single tug without exacerbating other problems. We may then see that, as bound to peace as we may be, there may be times when military action costs the world fewer lives than waiting for change. We may also see that refusing refugees based on the human-created boundaries circumscribing their birthplace makes as much sense as assuming everyone living in the hometown of a mass shooter should be refused entry to neighboring towns, because they might, you see, be future killers themselves.
The minute we scream “It’s simple, stupid!” we’re missing something and losing more. To be certain, listening to the the opposition should not mean letting go of our own values — not at all. It should mean that we hold them up to the light carefully to examine them, making sure that we’ve not battered those values of peace, compassion, love, equality, freedom, and human dignity. Are we loving everyone, even those voting to keep those assault rifles? Does our compassion extend to those who look different than us and those who fear those who look different from us? Does our freedom to believe or not to believe trample the freedom of those who pick the opposite? Without care and frequent inspection, our values become parodies of themselves, active only when we feel that another is worthy of them.
So let it be complicated. Read broadly, listen carefully, ask questions designed to understand opposing positions, and quiet defenses enough to listen to those positions. Drop the rhetoric and see where your words and actions betray your tightly-held values. Talk about what you truly value and not what others don’t. And keep seeking to understand.
It’s a complicated world, both within the walls of your own home and underneath our shared atmosphere. Start with the small stuff, just as my students are — driverless cars, technology and learning, the voting age. When you’re ready, move up to the harder stuff — religious freedom boundaries, the U.S. role in the Middle East, and how to parent your teens. It’s all complicated, and that’s okay.