Life is complex, and we treat it as simple to our detriment.
We believe that life is simple, that people are easy to control, that if we set up the right conditions, the world will right itself. Crime will cease. Hunger will disappear. Global warming will end. All it takes is the passage of a 2,500-page law that nobody, including the politicians, has the time or inclination to read.
We believe that cultures are simple, that at their core they understand that they should behave the way our culture does, the American way. A little diplomacy, a treaty here and there, a little meddling in the affairs of others and all will be well.
We believe that the environment is simple, that ice is good and fire is bad, that before humans showed up the ecosystem’s thermostat was set at a constant nature-loving temperature. We wring our hands at the stupidity of those who don’t see things our way, the simple way, the right way.
We’ve been trained, in our nation of ease, to think things are simple. All troubles resolve themselves by the time the sixty-minute episode ends. No matter how we live our lives, there’s a cleaning product or a government agency or a diet plan that will take care of it. But it’s not true. People die every day, sometimes from their own poor choices, sometimes in spite of their own good choices.
Despite all the education and inculcation of American ways, someone picks up a gun or a pressure cooker and starts killing the innocent. Even with all the entitlements and support programs, someone lives on the street within easy reach of low-cost housing and help-wanted signs. Notwithstanding our strict adherence to low-carb, low-fat, high-fiber diets forged with the help of cows not treated with rBST, someone gets cancer and dies, someone good, someone who didn’t deserve it.
Life has always been complex like this, built on a foundation of subatomic chaos and human free will. Sometimes the complications turn out for our good. Chemistry is filled with intricacies, but look at the amazing things we can build from ordinary elements and molecules. Sometimes the complexity fails us. As long as we acknowledge the complexity, the culture will endure and grow. When we pretend that life is simple—when we try to simply grab hold of life by its skinny little neck—things start to break down.
The books in the Well-Read Man Project have given me an appreciation of how complex life is, sometimes horrifying complex. Many of the works, including Max Havelaar, acknowledge the conflicting desires of people and races and nature itself, proposing borderline hopeful conclusions that make the best of a difficult environment. Others, such as Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, embrace the lie of simplicity, building worlds from stereotypes and cardboard caricatures, storylines where one well-placed violent revolution or romance will wipe away every care.
No matter what you read in the pages of a classic novel or on the cover of the New York Times, the complexity of life is real. As human beings who care about the world around us, we naturally work to bring order to our local pockets of chaos. But if we take some time to reflect on how pervasive that chaos is, we can hopefully bring allow the wisdom of complexity to guide us to actions that make sense.