Is it better to see life in complex or simple terms? Should I delve deeply into things, seeking hidden meanings, or should I just accept things at face value?
In my last post I looked at the argument in favour of complexity. Today, a look at the other side…
Simplicity plays a crucial role in the life of the true Christian. When our Lord gives us simple, direct commands, there is not a lot of wiggle room, nor should we be clever and try to find it. An example of this might be the central law of love in Christianity. We are enjoined to love our brothers and sisters in Christ, our neighbours, and even our enemies and those who persecute us: in simple terms, to love every human being in this world.
You can get pretty complicated in addressing the question of how to apply this command, but basically, it boils down to something pretty straightforward: put away your ego, your fear, your dignity and your pride. See how God loves the unlovable, and strive to do the same. When the man asked Jesus “who is my neighbour?”, he was possibly trying to find a way out of loving someone he didn’t want to love by changing the definitions. This is resorting to complexity where it does not belong. This is why attackers of Christianity accuse Christians of being hypocritical. Richard Dawkins is convinced that when Christians say “love thy neighbour”, they mean only the neighbour who belongs to my tribe, my faith, my nationality. From where does he get this ridiculous concept? From Christians who play with the words for their own selfish ends.
Simplicity makes life so much easier, so much more peaceful when we employ it in our dealings with one another. Consider the person who constantly doubts the motives of others, constantly taking offence at others’ words and actions, seeing insults where none are intended or snobbishness where none exists. This person lives in constant anxiety and discontentment. Compare him to one who takes the words and actions of others simply. When someone says, “I didn’t mean it”, he takes them at their word and thinks no more about it. If someone seems to ignore him, he takes no offence but rather anticipates that there is some other unknown reason for the apparent snub (he was tired, he was distracted, he has a tooth ache…) This person lives a life of peace and contentment. He is happy with others because he is happy within himself. A simple heart produces a simple eye, and a simple eye produces a simple heart.
Last time we considered mandlebulbs where simple instructions produced incredibly complex and beautiful forms. But the opposite may be true as well. Sometimes very complicated beginnings boil down to a very simple ending. Consider the famous Theory of Relativity discovered by the famous Albert Einstein, a man who himself was in love with simplicity. Some pretty heavy maths takes a long and circuitous path to boil down to a stunningly simple equation in the end: e = mc2.
In his personal life, Einstein sought simplicity in ways that many would consider eccentric at best, downright insane at worst. For example, he drove his poor wife crazy by insisting upon taking up the scissors and cutting off the cuffs of his shirtsleeves. What purpose do the darn things serve? All they do is get dirty and force you to wash the whole shirt before the rest of it is in need of washing! For similar reasons, he apparently often dispensed with socks. To his mind, unnecessary distractions prevented him from focusing his time and energy on his real goals, his mathematical and physical investigations, so he took the logical course and simplified his life.
Personally, I find much to admire in this approach. Gone are the days when I used to spend ages trying to match up my socks. Of course, they’re all black, but there is black and there is black. There are thicker winter materials and lighter summer ones. There are long, medium and short ones, with elastic and without, and then of course, there are all the stages of fading. You can tell I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about this. But one day it dawned upon me that this is such a waste of time. Black socks are black socks in the end, and who pays attention to your socks? Matching socks never got anyone into heaven, not so far as I know, anyway. So now I just take any two socks out of the washing basket and slip them on. Simplicity! It feels like being set free from prison! The prison was my own unnecessary perfectionism, vanity and small mindedness. Just don’t look too closely at my feet, next time we meet…
So where does all that leave us? Should we be simple or complex in our approach to life? The answer, I think, is both. There is a time and place for complexity and another for simplicity. There are even times when we should use them together, as we use a hammer and nail together. To know which is to be applied requires wisdom and discernment: gifts that generally are won through hard experience, many mistakes and an open mind.
“Be wise as serpents, innocent as doves”, said our Lord. And yes, it is possible to have both in the same person. I hope these modest reflections may have shed a little light on how this is possible.