Crippling Complexity

On October 22, 1853 Henry David Thoreau wrote in his journal,

“As for the complex ways of living, I love them not, however much I practice them. In as many places as possible, I will get my feet down to the earth.”

It sounds nice but isn’t this merely the rumination of a 19th Century misanthrope – a writer frustrated by the inability of his ideas to catch fire among the gentry of Concord and broader Massachusetts? Isn’t this another pontification pulled from the endless whimsy of the soon-to-fade reclusive transcendentalist community?

Or is this perhaps a more compelling thought for the spring of 2022 than ever?

Perhaps the only reason we don’t bemoan the appaling complexity we find ourselves caught up in today is its pervasiveness – a complexity that describes our very human environment. How much more could each of us really accomplish daily if not for crippling complexity? And I don’t mean how much more paperwork or endless compliance could we fulfill but how much more of the things that really do matter – not to those making demands of us but to ourselves? How much better could we be?

We don’t just own computers but maintain them and learn them. The pervasive smart phones and their apps and incumbent maintenance preoccupy us day and night – you know, the things billed as streamlining or simplifying our lives. How much of a given year is taken from each of us for all forms of government compliance, the stuff that injects pure misery into lives and assures that we are ruled in all aspects of our lives? How much paperwork accompanies renting an apartment, buying a home, buying a car, starting with a new employer? Is it indeed possible to read it all? What can possibly be done about it?

What kind of complexity is behind each of the stories feature in our favorite news sources. The marketing of these news blurbs has invented a new media goading us toward more clicks and engagement rather than deeper understanding of the issues at hand? Do you really feel you know what just happened worldwide through the COVID years? Do you understand the tenth part of new technologies coming online now? Or, relevant to this moment, do you think you know the whole story of the Ukraine and the factions involved?

We refuse to acknowledge the complexity trap even as we edge closer to insanity.

Thoreau wrote in Walden of two smooth stones he owned which he threw away when he realized that he was beginning to take time to dust them. This was pointed to as the beginning of the path to perdition – opening a door to a life of maintenance and needless complexity.

It’s not easy to streamline one’s life today, cutting away the non-essential. Doing so is rarely discussed and, at least, any such discussion is drowned by the cacophone of advertising for new devices, by the ostensible “news,” (another form of marketing, really) or by politicians telling us why our lives are incomplete without them and their latest programs.

A return to the elemental today is more compelling today than it was in 1853. What have we lost sight of as we’ve tried to comprehend our taxes, as we’ve struggled to maintain appropriate health coverage or kept abreast of continuing education requirements?

Yet, the elemental is still there – more pervasive in fact than all the distractions mentioned above. This spring the rain will fall on the Appalachian forest once again. Water will saturated the duff and moss, woodland rivulets will fill and feed ten thousand rapid flowages. Multifarious mushrooms willl sprout alongside reticent salamanders and wood frogs. The walleye will spawn shortly and minnows and suckers will ascend from rivers upstream into the forest.

It’s all still there for the taking if we can take the time. First, perhaps, we need to think of all that can be cut away.

“Our Life is frittered away by detail…Simplify, Simplify.”

H.D. Thoreau – Walden

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