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Nests of nests

December 13, 2013

Consider the primary relationship between two people, a man and a woman. No one who has ever been part of such a relationship could think of it in linear terms, except in review of failure. There are many things that can be said of the relationship between a man and a woman. A straight line isn't one of them, except in the case of failure. Even that experience resembles more the shape of a downward spiral.
Rather, this relationship is a fluid concept, one of give and take, of circling and (if you're on the male side of the equation) circling back and circling again. It's a relationship of constant negotiation, agreement, and then negotiation all over again. Nothing is fixed. What works one day doesn't the next. Just ask the man. Linear tools are sadly and almost entirely meaningless to any understanding of the relationship between a man and a woman.
Let's widen the scope now, and bring in the relationship of parent and child. Until that child's frontal lobe gets well past the teen years, there's nothing linear in sight. Logic, in the beginning, plays no role at all, and only nominally for many years thereafter. Consider the assignments. The child's job is to get more rope, more room to play, more freedom to climb down those stairs head first, more ice cream, and later hours spent out with friends. The parent's job, of course, is to increasingly release lengths of rope over the years, but only enough in aid of the safe and healthy development of the child. Any more than that and somebody gets hung.
Add a sibling or two, and encircle the increasingly complex dynamic. You will assuredly be confronted by a total absence of linearity in relationships. The greater the number, the more complex the evolving picture becomes. The word 'linearity' has no place here. Complexity may not give us comfort but it is our reality. At the margins, bring in all the extraneous factors – school, work, boyfriends, neighbours, bankers, and tax collectors, not to mention the planet, on which we are but a very small, albeit dangerous, component – and all of a sudden what we try to see as a simple model becomes an untenable panorama of chaos.
In the absence of leadership, shared goals, and a clear set of rules and regulations, the inmates will soon take over the asylum.
Let us wrap these relationships in progressively wider, imperfect, and overlapping circles. With each new circle, we see evermore complex relationships within and among communities, nation states, and ultimately, the entire global village. The combinations and permutations are virtually endless. Now that we've taken a picture of this collection of nested circles, wait a nano-second and take another picture… and another… and then another.
From Heraclitus, "No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it's not the same river and he's not the same man."
We live in a world of unending complexity. In the words of John Ralston Saul, we are wise to seek, "an expression of society as a balance of complexity, a sort of equilibrium." Ironically, that's the simple truth of it. The problem arises when we crave too much in clarity and simplicity over complexity.
Certainty is restricted to the minds of newly minted MBAs, though not often paired with accuracy.
Uncertainty is our natural state.
We seek simplicity so we can function, but more often than not, we over-simplify. The result is surprise and disappointment when things don't work out as planned. The shattering of myths.
Here's the thing. Models that create permanent resolution are doomed before they even get started. We see things, not as they are, but as we'd like them to be. Depending on the clarity of our vision at the time, we may well be able to conceive and create a fixed model that works… for a time. Oops! Take another picture… and then another. It doesn't take much time-lapse photography to realize that it's time for another model. That was then, this is now. Almost everything is negotiable. Not everything, but almost everything.
Part of the challenge is that, too often, we become married to our own creations. What's worse is that we create myths of perfection for ourselves and for anyone who will listen. In commercial terms, this is called post-purchase consonance. The honeymoon effect in full force. Eventually, however, the warranty expires or the honeymoon is replaced by a late mortgage payment. The shine comes off and we have to deal with it, get over it, pack up our lessons, and move on. Every collection of relationships has its own unique set of myths. Each member of every relationship has his or her own unique set of myths. My truth is not your truth. Be assured. Yours is certainly not mine. Superimpose this collection of layered and conflicting mythology on the world at large, and the term 'exponential growth' does not say enough to describe the resulting scope of complexity.
Defining moments, I would argue, make this mythological chaos all the more devastating when it comes crashing down. Sometimes, I wonder if it's better not to have a defining moment. Think about that one for a moment. If you become too attached to something, by virtue of a defining moment, it makes changing gears more difficult when a better idea comes along. What happens when these myths were created generations ago, and perpetuated by people completely removed from the original story?
Every once in a while, I think it's a good idea to clear the table and ask ourselves: If we were to re-create this model today, which elements would we keep and which would we toss? Not an easy exercise, but critical to renewal, if not survival itself.
If harmony is an objective for us, and I hope it is, it can only be attained by way of Saul's balance across layers of relationships – an equilibrium of complexity. Accepting that relationships are the key to success in all life pursuits, we must acknowledge the great diversity we face in the increasing number and complexity of circles through which we travel. I would argue that it is incumbent on us to dislodge ourselves and resist as we break free from monolithic thinking. Simplicity and singularity is useful… only to a point… and beyond that point, it is not.
We are a contradiction in terms. Monolithic versus diverse. Simple versus complex. Expanding circles versus dangerously normal. We are most accurately defined by a lack of definition. As a complex and dynamic society, we defy oneness in favour of a collection of relationships, each one complex and dynamic. We do not need absolute clarity and certainty and resolution for the sake of comfort and peace of mind. Our society is neither Manichean nor fixed in time, so we should stop trying to force it into oversimplified and overly inflexible theoretical models. It just won't go.

Kevin Graham

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