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Simplicity and complexity

I work in the field of addiction, and the majority of my clients have an addiction to alcohol. You'd think that if problem is too much alcohol, then surely the solution is simple. Just stop. Just don't drink. How hard can that be?

Pretty damn hard, as it turns out. Delving into addiction opens a world of complexity. First, there is the issue of habits - behaviour patterns repeated over and over again until they are hard-wired into the brain. Then there is the super-charging of the brain's reward system, exaggerating the value of the alcohol and ramping up the drive to obtain it. And then there is the paradox of willpower: if someone can apply self-control in one area of their life (and I see many otherwise high-achievers), why can't they apply it to controlling their alcohol intake? Human nature plays a part too, with our tendency to forget and grow complacent as a threat recedes, and our incredible ability to rationalise our decisions in order to get what we want. Of course there is also our society's romantic view of alcohol's pleasures, and the overt and subtle pressure to imbibe. There is also the addict's personal long-standing love affair with the bottle, and the very real grief at the thought of losing it. And that is before we even start on the reasons for drinking; to invigorate, to reward, to soothe, to embolden, to forget, to numb, to destroy. 'Just don't drink'?! It is nowhere near that simple.

A large part of my job is helping people to navigate this complexity; to understand the factors that drive their use and devise strategies that help them change. For many, it is a confusing, frustrating and frightening process, often taking months or years. But one of the great rewards of my job is seeing people emerge at the other end. Often I can see a visible difference - their body language changes, their speech is calmer, their whole 'presence' is altered from agitation to serenity. It is like an invisible line has been crossed, and the great internal struggle has subsided. When I ask these people "so what's changed?", their answer is almost always along the lines of "I know I just can't drink. It's that simple."

So there are two kinds of simplicity: naive simplicity and informed simplicity. The naive simplicity is the kind sprouted by shock jocks and idealists alike, based on limited knowledge, bias or wishful thinking. Informed simplicity, on the other hand, is gained by thoroughly understanding the complexity, and being able to distil this back into a smaller number of truths, principles, goals or actions. Informed simplicity can allow us to see things as they really are, to sort the important from the trivial, or to blend multiple factors into a seamless or intuitive whole.

We can see this at work in the area of skills. To watch a tennis player or a golf player you might think "it's just hitting a ball, how hard can that be?" But of course there are an enormous number of factors at play, and achieving a 'perfect' shot requires hours and hours of attention to wrist angles and shoulder swing and foot position. It is only by mastering this complexity that an expert can achieve an effortless simplicity of 'just hitting the ball'.


The same idea can be seen in relationships. "It's simple", declare the romantics, "all you need is love!" However relationships quickly reveal enormous complexity: How are the chores to be shared? How do we negotiate decisions? Should we have children? How will we raise them? What if I'm still attracted to other people? Who am I now that I'm half of a couple? And do you have to cut your toenails in the lounge room?!

It all seems horribly messy. And yet, in the end, what does it all come down to? You have to love one another. But the naive, idealistic love of the romantics is very different to the wiser, stronger love that is forged by navigating this complexity together over time, gaining a deeper bond based on true understanding, acceptance and compromise.

Michael Leunig suggest "Love one another and you will be happy. It's as simple and as difficult as that." Because simple is not the same as easy. Simplicity provides clarity and focus. It helps you to prioritise your efforts, but it still requires effort. It allows you to pick your battles, but you must still fight those battles.

Michael Leunig

Being prepared to navigate life's complexity with open eyes, heart and mind requires courage. You may have to sacrifice beliefs and ideas that you hold dear. You may have to face frightening truths. You will almost certainly feel overwhelmed and helpless. But from this you can emerge with greater wisdom, strength and conviction.

Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote "for the simplicity that lies this side of complexity, I would not give a fig, but for the simplicity that lies on the other side of complexity, I would give my life." I first read this quote in terms of being heroically prepared to die in order to gain informed simplicity. Today I read it as a willingness to devote one's life to the quest for this distilled wisdom; to embrace complexity and uncertainty in order to cultivate a life that feels clear and meaningful and true.

What do you think?

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