Modern society rewards simplicity. “Don’t bother me with the details. Keep the fine print to yourself. Just show me where to sign.”
We decide elections based on tweets and 30-second commercials. We repost “facts” online without being sure they’re even factual. We adopt our parents’ positions, or those of our peers, because it’s easier than doing the research ourselves.
And we label ourselves. We reduce who we are to easily digestible name brands or slogans based on our career or faith or political ideology.
We have little patience, or tolerance, for complexity.
Yet we ourselves are nothing if not complex. The human organism isn’t a singer sitting alone onstage in a spotlight. It’s a symphony orchestra of musicians playing a diverse array of instruments. And that symphony is playing alongside myriad others in a grand concerto conducted by the universe.
We’re loath to admit any of this. It’s easy to put that spotlight on one person; but keeping track of each moving part in the human body – let alone a vast ecosystem – is a daunting task. It can be so overwhelming that our bodies themselves keep us on autopilot much of the time. They keep our hearts beating, our eyes blinking and our lungs breathing without any conscious effort. It’s a lot easier that way: Imagine if you had to actually think about it each time you took a breath.
Certain things are supposed to be automatic. But others aren’t.
It’s one thing to assign something like breathing to the unconscious mind; although it must be maintained constantly, it’s pretty much the same thing time and again: Breath in, breath out, repeat. Only when something out of the ordinary happens – like, say, a sneeze or a hiccup – do we become conscious of what’s going on.
But it’s quite another thing to put ourselves on autopilot when it comes to tasks that are less mundane. That, however, is what we do. We dismiss people based on the color of their skin, their gender or sexual orientation. We rely on snap judgments to make important decisions. In short, we treat our conscious mind as though it were performing the same menial tasks assigned to our autonomic nervous system – the thing that keeps our blood pumping and digests our food, all without bothering us with the details.
Switching to autopilot may not be as effective when it comes to making complex choices, but it’s far easier – at least in the short run. Make no mistake, being conscious (or aware) is hardly a walk in the park. It requires living your life like a scientist, always being open to new information and willing to process it, even if it leads you to new conclusions. That’s not only a lot of work, it’s also scary because it exposes us to new challenges instead of allowing us to stick with the same routine.
Motivational speakers urge people to “get out of their comfort zone,” but that isn’t accurate, because so-called comfort zones don’t exist. Not really. Life is dangerous and always changing. Comfort zones are just artificial constructs we create to make ourselves feel safe. They’re buffers that insulate our minds from the stress of dealing with the real world minute by minute, day by day.
If you doubt the difficulty of doing so, ask yourself why ignorance often really is bliss. Or, conversely, why more intelligent people are more likely to deal with stress, depression, anxiety and bipolar disorder. People dedicated to remaining open-minded make themselves vulnerable to the effects of information overload. This is even more true of empathic individuals who not only think a lot, they also feel a lot because of their ability to put themselves in other people’s shoes.
In today’s world, we can stay in touch with people better than ever online, and information is transmitted in volumes unimaginable just a few decades ago. There’s more to process than ever. A world of worry and tragedy is literally at our fingertips via keyboard, so is it any wonder that more and more of us are retreating into the denial of simplicity? We don’t want to be overwhelmed with all those ideas, possibilities, conflicting claims and uncomfortable feelings. Can you really blame us?
It’s not just our world that we seek to simplify, it’s ourselves. Those labels I mentioned earlier? We’re relying on them more and more as a shorthand in defining who we are. We’re either this race or that religion, this career or that hobby. And everything else isn’t worth mentioning, because we don’t have time for it. We don’t want to have to explain ourselves any more than we want to sift through explanations provided by others.
But in labeling ourselves, we forget who we really are. We reduce ourselves to two-dimensional cardboard cutouts identical – on the outside – to thousands of others who share our label. Still, that doesn’t change the complexity on the inside, which we hide because it’s so ... inconvenient.
We could be heroes
Those open-minded and empathic people who expose themselves to the complexity of others’ thoughts and feelings? They tend to be the same people who acknowledge that complexity in themselves. As others become more closed off and define themselves more narrowly, those who do the opposite feel increasingly out of place – and are tempted to close themselves off, as well, to avoid the ridicule of those who don’t understand them.
Call us eclectic, eccentric, weird, complicated or whatever. We have interests so diverse that we can’t be pigeonholed. We might enjoy heavy metal and classical music, tearjerkers and action movies. We might be comedians one moment and dead serious the next, and we don’t swallow political platforms whole. Maybe we write books about highways, dragons, ancient philosophies and department stores (yes, that would be me).
Sometimes, we stay awake at night trying to figure things out, trying to sort through all the sensory input we’ve received and see how it fits with our intuition and what we already (think we) know.
We are what used to be called Renaissance men and women; we’re out to make masterpieces of the mind and soul, and we seem increasingly out of place in a world content with assembly lines and sound bites.
We dare to look complexity in the eye without flinching or burying our heads in the sand; on the contrary, we dare to look for the beauty where others find only terror. It’s not easy. It’s stressful, overwhelming and anxiety provoking. But we do it because we have to; because someone has to. And because we can’t imagine doing it any other way.
Because more than ever, the world needs heroes. And that’s what heroes do.