It can scarcely be denied that the supreme goal of all theory is to make the irreducible basic elements as simple and as few as possible without having to surrender the adequate representation of a single datum of experience.

– Albert Einstein, from “On the Method of Theoretical Physics,” the Herbert Spencer Lecture, Oxford, June 10, 1933.

He [Einstein] said, in effect, that everything should be as simple as it can be but not simpler!

– Roger Sessions, How a “Difficult” Composer Gets That Way, NYT January 8, 1950

Recently I committed a personal sin and tweeted a bit of angst. Not on the @LuvLifePractice twitter (which of course you’re following, right? How about Facebook?) but on one of my personal accounts. Mea culpa; while I have certainly gotten much better since my old LiveJournal days of wearing my heart out on my sleeve, I still sometimes slip and let out the emotional effluvia to the world at large.

Almost immediately several well-meaning people were trying to help me, offering advice and solutions. I found myself getting annoyed; they obviously didn’t understand the background that had led to this emotion, they didn’t see the barriers I still had to overcome, they didn’t understand.

Really? I can hear you saying. In all of 140 characters, you weren’t able to express the full extent of the emotion? Shocking…

Yeah, I know. And I’m happy to say that after one slightly bite-your-head-off tweet, I forced myself to shut up (good practice: shut yourself off from social media when you’re in a bad mood). At the same time, I found myself reflecting on the similar tone coming from different sources:

All you have to do is…

If you would only just…

It’s really simple if you…

The thing that everyone was forgetting: simple is relative.

Life Isn’t Just

I know that in a complicated and complex world (the difference which will be the subject of a future post) the idea of “simple” is appealing. I myself love reading and minimalist mommi and even the tangentially minimalist like Presentation Zen. But the fact is, there are two things that can make any situation seem simple:

  1. Being outside of it.
  2. Being done with it.
Strutting (Pinot Bao, Flickr CC)
Not this kind of strut. I think.

I’m not helpless around cars. I can change a tire, a battery, an oil or air filter, and even the thermostat on a 1979 Pinto wagon. It’s simple! However, ask me to change the struts? Simple, my mechanic friend tells me, if you don’t have to do the alignment or replace the springs. Which makes me laugh, because while I have a vague idea of what “alignment” is I probably couldn’t show you the struts if my life depended on it. Springs, maybe…they’re the coily things, right?

It’s simple for her because she’s done it before. I can even tell you that it’s a simple process because I’m not doing it; I’m relying on the opinion of others. But if I was laying underneath my car, knowing that I had to change the struts…suddenly it’s a lot more complicated.

Even Worse: They’re Right

What’s really annoying about all those people who were trying to give me helpful, simple suggestions was that they are absolutely correct. It is as simple as taking that first step, as opening that book, as making that phone call, as getting out of bed. The solutions to many problems – most, even – can be broken down into simple steps. Pick up the phone. Dial the number. Say hello.

What they’re wrong about is the distance between where you are and that first step. The first step is miles away. It often seems entirely out of reach. There’s about 70 zillion parts underneath the car, and any dozen of them could be a strut.

Then you get the Chilton’s manual, and you try to figure it out. You try a few things, puzzling out familiar tools in unfamiliar places and vice versa. You maybe call your mechanic friend to see if she can help put back in those “extra” parts you took out just in case. And then at a certain point you’re done, and as you’re cleaning the grease of your hands, you say those magic words: That wasn’t as complicated as I thought it would be.

You’ve passed through the experience, and suddenly you have a better idea. Notice it’s still not simple; you’ll have to do a few more before it reaches that status.The real fact is, it was never simple. The amount of science and research and high-tech manufacturing that went into the elements of that “simple” strut? Borders on magic, in the Arthur C. Clarke sense of the word.  It only becomes simple with familiarity.

“The Map Ain’t the Territory”

Up until a few minutes ago, I thought that quote was from Mark Twain. Nope! Turns out it’s actually from Korzybski:

A map is not the territory it represents, but, if correct, it has similar structure to the territory, which accounts for its usefulness.

courtesy Cea, Flickr CC
Oldest Known World Map. Note Starbucks Locations.

When you’re expressing a “simple” solution to a problem or situation for someone else, remember that you’re providing them with a map. It’s either a map of somewhere you’ve heard of, like me giving my daughter a map of Dublin before her upcoming vacation, or it’s a map of the places you’ve been, like the journal I keep for my grandsons.

Neither is actually a representation of the situation the person is in. Chilton manuals, in all their exploded-diagram glory, do not take into account the frozen ground under the car, or the 12 hour shift you worked before you had a chance to repair it, or the children asking When’s dinner? just when you’re about to get that particular nut loose. None of that is – or could be – covered in any manual, on cars, relationships, or life.

Love, life, and practice is far more complex and beautiful.

And me? Quite simply, I wouldn’t have it any other way.

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