Practical Philosophy

The Essential Complexity of Life

I spend most of my professional effort these days working on and thinking about software and computer programming. I enjoy it, and it casts a whole interesting lens on lots of other things. One topic I recently discovered — I even wrote about it in the software context — is the difference between essential (or inherent) complexity, and accidental (or incidental) complexity.

On the surface, you may already understand the idea, but if not let me elaborate quickly. A piece of software will have two sources of complication: the part about the problem it solves that is just hard, and everything else. Tax law is hard, and so software that deals with tax law has a large amount of inherent or necessary complexity to it. If you’re selling in a country like the United States where many local areas have many different taxes and regulations, just pretending that there exists a simple percentage tax in effect throughout the whole country is unlikely to be workable. This unworkable difficulty of the problem is said to be essential or inherent.

Incidental complexity, on the other hand, is much of the actual difficulty with most software in the world. And this complexity isn’t coming from the complexity of the problem, but the mistakes fallible humans make while trying to solve it using computers. Some of this will come because the programming system is inadequate, some of this comes because people misuse the programing system, and some of the issue comes when people use the right tool but in the wrong way.

So what does any of this have to do about the world outside of software? A whole lot. Life is pretty simple really. All life on earth only requires a few basic elements to flourish and multiply. It needs space. It needs a supportive environment in temperature, wetness, and shelter. It needs an energy source: food and water for us humans. And it needs others of its species with whom to learn, socialize, and procreate. And that’s just about it really.

It doesn’t really need a loving relationship with its father. It doesn’t really need to have a nice car. It doesn’t really need a fancy TV or nice clothes, or even a very nice shelter. It doesn’t need to know what its future holds. It doesn’t need to have a beautiful body or a hunk of a husband. Sure those things are nice, and surely they have benefits, but we count them as essential and we’re mixing in the incidental complexity of what we want with the essential complexity of what we really need.

The more time I spend with the idea that life is simple, the truer it feels to me. Maybe this is just a long strung-out trip of self-delusion, but I think it’s actually a deep and profound truth. Life is stupidly simple. If you’ve got food, water, shelter, and health, you don’t need much else. That is a stable base from which you can draw tremendous feelings of strength, well-being, and stability. Other things you could have may make those feelings easier to cultivate, but they are not necessary.

We like to look past how few things are really essential in our life because it’s so humbling to see. We’d rather tell stories of our heroism, or victimization, or ongoing struggle. They give us a supporting narrative which can feel quite compelling. But they’re not really a necessary part of our life. Very little is.

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Practical Philosophy

“Simple But Not Easy”

I don’t remember quite where I first encountered the phrase “simple but not easy,” but after a recent encounter it’s been stuck in my head. I believe deeply that all the important insights in life are simple. Really really really stupidly simple.

The reason the phrase is stuck in my head, though, is that there’s an often related, unstated, and wrong corollary that people think follows from the idea that everything is simple: that everything is easy. Things are not easy. At least not for many people in many situations much of the time.

How does one develop a reputation as a kind, generous, and admirable person? Well, by being a kind, generous, and admirable person. (Duh! It is that simple.) But how do I act kindly, generously, and admirably? You perform actions that feel kind, generous, and admirable. (Duh! It is that simple.) What about when I don’t really feel like it and I really just want to say the mean thought that’s on my mind because I’m tired and a bit fed up? Even then, especially then. I didn’t say it was easy.

We know what it means to be nice. We know what it means to have courage. We know what it means to forgive. We know what it is to help. We know what it is be present. We know what it is to love. When we don’t do those things, in most cases, it’s not because we don’t know how we would do them. Rather, we fail to demonstrate qualities we admire because they either aren’t easy for us to see, or they aren’t the easy or expected thing for us to do.

To really be the kind of person who is thought of as kind is an exceptionally hard task. It’s hard not because it’s not obvious how to be kind. It’s hard because it’s not easy to be kind to a lot of people a lot of the time. People have a habit of doing things we don’t like. And the easy reaction when someone does something we don’t like is to be mean. To meet what we perceive as their unkindness with our own. It is a hard thing to be kind when every impulse you have is to lash back. But it really is simple.

The core insight of “simple but not easy” is this: while we frequently want to blame our deficiencies on a lack of knowledge — thinking that we “don’t know how” to do the right thing — it’s typically actually caused by a lack of will. We tend to — for comfort, for simplicity, for the conservation of energy — do what is easy. But if we want to be proud of our actions, we should try to do what is simple and obviously going to make us feel admirable and proud. Not just when it is easy, but when it is hard. Especially when it is hard.

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Practical Philosophy

Simply Here. Simply Now.

We make life so complicated. We’re always ready to tell — to ourself or to others — our horror story. You know the one: where you explain why things aren’t as you really want them to be. Maybe you’re not rich yet, but need to be to be happy. Maybe you’ve been so slighted by the world that you’re owed a great debt. Maybe it’s something else entirely. But none of those ideas can really change the simplicity of what it happening right now. Continue reading

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big ideas

On the Banality of Profound Truths

If there was one obstacle, beyond laziness, that made me hesitate to get back to writing in more than the few-sentence bursts I regularly produce for Link Banana it was my uncertainty about what of value I could say.

It’s not that I don’t think people need to hear things I think that I know–while there may be merit in possessing that type of modesty, I do not–it’s that they’ve already heard those things I think they most need to hear.

Things about how money doesn’t buy happiness. That understanding is rooted in attention. That the greatest obstacle to your happiness is your waiting to be happy. That happiness is not the same as pleasure, or a lack of sadness. That ignoring the present situation is the worst way to change it. That you can always find something to be thankful for. That anger is never the best way to solve a problem. That an act of kindness is never squandered.

These statements–and many others I didn’t list–are all, at least to my ears, the most obvious of truths. There are hundreds of famous quotations that attest to all of them. Anyone unacquainted with those quotations probably wouldn’t be reading anything I said anyway.

These short and obvious cliches are exactly what conventional wisdom says a writer should avoid.  But anything that takes more than a sentence to express seems overstated to me. While a sentence can’t explain the political climate of Somalia, or what spin means with relation to the bonding of atoms, or how the crash of the US stock market in 1929 was influenced by Germany, none of those things hit you where you live. Between your insides and your outsides none of those things matter.

The only things that really affect your quality of life exist within a radius about the length of your arms from your body. Everything outside of that radius is not acting on you in any direct way, and is thus irrelevant to your true quality of life.

I think that if there’s a single reason that the facts I consider most essential are simple, it’s this: not that much exists between your mind and fingertips. And even the most teeming of minds doesn’t contain much more than twenty thoughts at a time. And chatter among twenty idea’s can only get so complex.

People searching the edges of human knowledge are unlikely find anything there that will, or should, fundamentally affect their life as it’s lived daily. The confirmation of string theory says absolutely nothing to that longing you feel lying alone in your bed for the first time in years. A better understanding of the relationship between modern man and neanderthals, or market demand and labor supply, will not correct your dysfunctional relationship with everyone in your family. The existence or nonexistence of God changes nothing about your difficulty controlling your drinking.

But a single new idea, if it’s strong, simple, and powerful enough, added to the constant mental chatter can fundamentally change the timbre of the conversation in your mind. And that constant chattering is the very substance of your disposition, your life, and your reality. It is you, more than anything else anyone thinks they know about you. And you’re the one I’m interested in.

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big ideas, poetry

In Praise of Simplicity

I think that one of greatest poems ever written is “The Red Wheelbarrow” by William Carlos Williams. You’d be hard pressed to find something that said so much with so little:

so much depends
upon

a red wheel
barrow

glazed with rain
water

beside the white
chickens.

The image is stark and clear, and though we may not know what the “so much” is that depends upon this beautiful image, it’s better that we’re left to guess.

I like to assume that “so much” is the fate of the known world. That all the things that I and you hold dear are at risk. Not in the absolute way that they may be threatened from an angry neighbor or a nuclear bomb, but something about our existence would be the less if this image didn’t happen. If this instant of reality wasn’t captured in these words.

But this poem isn’t great just because of its length and simplicity of structure. Surely poems have been written with fewer letters, or with a less delineated structure. This is about the density of the images and their meaning.

And don’t think that this is only about poems. I would contend that some of the greatest books, movies, and paintings are also starkly simple. The Little Prince or any Dr. Seuss is simple. But in their simplicity there is also something crucial. Saint Exupery’s story is brimming given its length. Dr. Seuss is fun, but he’s also teaching us something. Always teaching us something we really should know.

Movies. Too many people are too concerned with displaying the weakness of men, their personal struggles and the deeper meaning of those struggles. I’m not saying these aren’t worthy and sometimes interesting quests, but the measure of a films worth should not be the number of meanings that we can only guess at. David Lynch makes interesting movies, but they are not fun nor joyful.

Sometimes what we need is simple easy joy. Sometimes (maybe a lot) we need to put down The Brothers Karamazov and look for a time at a red wheel barrow glazed with rain water and just, for a time, soak in the glow of simplicity.

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