My relationship with complexity – Odessa

What would a nine month intensive post-grad fellowship be without a little existential questioning? Big doubts about what I’m doing here had already been simmering under the surface for some time when I read an article shared by a fellow Fellow called The Reductive Seduction of Other People’s Problems. After outlining the inherent risks of traveling to another part of the world to attempt to solve big social, environmental, and economic issues, the author, Courtney Martin, cautions that we should not go because of a love for solvability but because we’ve “fallen in love with complexity.”

This line stands out even within a thought provoking article that is chock full of calls to self-reflection and calls to action. I had to ask myself, am I in love with complexity? Because, according to this well argued piece of writing, if I’m not I probably shouldn’t be in rural Guatemala right now and I certainly shouldn’t be working on a community development initiative.

Of course, I wanted to say yes. Yes, I love complexity and all the messy humanness that comes with group work and efforts to effect change. However, in my profession of love I did not want to simply echo hollow words. If I am going to declare my love for anything, you better believe there is a great deal of analysis that will go into such a statement.

When I look back on the first five months of the fellowship, above all, what I have to show for myself is a fairly sustained effort to immerse myself in the complexity of the community. When participants balked at my suggestion to focus on a collective project, I did not try to persuade them to change their point of view. Instead I did what I could to try to understand where this fear and apparent resistance was coming from. I asked questions and listened to people share their experiences and, from time to time, large portions of their life’s story. Many times I felt encouraged, rationalizing the obstacles I encountered as a result of the complexity that was revealed, rather than a shortcoming on my part.

I have spent five months getting to know Complexity. We spend most days together. We’ve shared many moments. Now would be as good a time as any to publically state my affection. To declare to the world my love and thus justify my continued participation in the field of community development. But I’m just not there.

I don’t love complexity. At best I tolerate it. For the most part, I’ve identified (perhaps only semi-consciously until this point) complexity as a barrier to the success of the initiative. I often fantasize about an easier road ahead – one where all the complexity I’ve had the opportunity to get to know magically disappears. It would be so much simpler to plan a sustainable, community-led project if I didn’t feel as though I was battling against the ghosts of past projects. The process would run more smoothly if all of the participants could just get along.

Complexity in a microcosm.
Group work – complexity in a microcosm.

So no. I don’t love complexity. But if that’s what I need to do to meaningfully contribute to positive change, I want to love it. I truly do.

Therefore, I asked myself, What would loving complexity look like? What are the risks or benefits of simply tolerating it? And, How do I move from seeing complexity as a barrier towards acceptance and maybe even love?

WHAT WOULD LOVING COMPLEXITY LOOK LIKE?

As someone who is not quite there yet, this question is difficult to answer. I think I know what it doesn’t look like. It probably doesn’t involve fantasies about a complexity-free interaction. Where I sometimes feel discouraged by another piece added to the complexity puzzle, a lover would likely feel energized. Instead of seeing an obstacle, these people must see possibility, hope, optimism, and a whole range of other positive sounding words. I have to admit, it sounds nice. I am definitely tempted to give love a try.

But let’s be honest. Change is hard. I’ve come this far simply tolerating complexity. It would probably be easiest to stay the course.

WHAT ARE THE RISKS/BENEFITS OF TOLERANCE?

Aside from the pleasant sounding words associated with loving complexity, I think it is probably easier said than done. I want to emphasize that I’m talking about real love. That unconditional stuff we’re all striving for. The love where there are no “buts.” That’s why I can’t honestly say that I love it right now. I could say, I love complexity but it makes my job harder and sometimes I wish it would go away. Unconditional love is accepting someone, or in this case something, exactly as they are with no ulterior motives or desires to change them.

On the side of benefits, my tolerance has allowed me to make my way through the fellowship experience so far without confronting my underlying resistance to complexity. I have recognized its existence, labeled it as a source of difficulty, and enjoyed feeling sorry for myself when it comes up, time and time again. Not much of a reward is it? What I mean to say is that tolerance is the easy route. No confrontation. No efforts for self-improvement. Just a resigned acceptance.

The biggest risk is clearly outlined in the Martin article and something that I have been flirting with for most of my short professional career: burnout. Tolerance is not a sustainable way to approach complexity.

HOW CAN I CHANGE?

Is it possible to change from being a complexity tolerator to a complexity lover? I have to believe that recognizing that I’ve seen complexity as a barrier, thus far, is the first step. Now the next time I respond to complexity with cold tolerance I may catch myself doing so and challenge myself to reimagine that interaction from a stance of love. Bit by bit, little by little, over time this could change from being something I have to encourage myself to do into my natural way of being in the world.

So I say, bring on the complexity! I will do my best to embrace it.

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