Sunday, September 25, 2005

Thoughts on Simplicity and Complexity

Liz at "The Good Raised Up" posted this entry on simplicity and complexity, which caught my attention:

The Good Raised Up: There and back again

Here is my response:

Thank you, Liz, for posting about this. I think a lot about simplicity and complexity, and, like your friend, I find myself especially attracted to understanding simplicity in terms of centering one's life around leadings from the Divine.

But I do not think that what is complex then is somehow not from the Divine. Sometimes it may be, sometimes not.

If you center yourself in what you feel led or called to do (and that is the essential simplicity of your life -- you focus only on that), then sometimes you may feel led or called to embrace complexity.

This is certainly how I feel. The world's problems are complex, and so there is need for there to be some people who are willing and able to face this complexity.

So, I'm not sure that the opposite of simplicity is necessarily complexity -- instead, those two make a powerful creative tension, I think. The undesirable contrast may be something more like "extravagance" and/or letting oneself be divided between seeking acceptance, or wealth, or status in the world vs. centering one's life solely on discerning God's will.

Of course I continued to think about this after posting my comment. And so I would like to add two additional thoughts.

The first is a very important disclaimer about humility. In the Quaker world, the humility that always undergirds the quest for God's will, God's leadings, God's calling, is well-understood and taken for granted and (usually) does not need to be mentioned out loud. This is because historically the Quakers were careful to develop ways to test leadings, and so individuals are cautious about attributing their actions to leadings without careful testing (e.g., testing for consistency with other well-established moral princples; testing for persistence over time; and especially testing in community, perhaps through clearness committees; etc.). And even then, Friends tend to say, "I felt led," rather than "I was led." We are always humbly well-aware that we can get it wrong, and that we must take full responsiblity for our actions.

Within the Quaker world, this is pretty well understood. But I know that my readership extends beyond the Quaker world, and so I wanted to make this point clear.

Secondly, the notion of a creative tension between simplicity and complexity is a very powerful concept. At one point in my life, I finally resigned myself to "being called to complexity." Hence the name of this blog! It is a very challenging call! But, with all proper humility, I do realize that the complexities that have layered my life might not in fact all be part of my true calling. To be honest, my life persistently feels just on the edge of being out of control. This is not good. I've taken on a little too much. But which are the pieces I took on with the wrong motivations and need now to let go of? I am very much trying to discern this, with the help of trusted friends. My guiding principle is very simple:

  • For each task I find myself facing, each project I am involved in: am I really being led? Is this really part of my call?
So, at the core, there is simplicity. The simplicity is having just that one guiding principle. While as a human being, my motivations can be mixed if I am not attentive enough, at least I know this and remain alert for how to bring it all back to this simple principle. I don't have a whole checklist of principles such as:

  • Will it make me happy?
  • Will it advance my career?
  • Will it help me become famous?
  • Will it help me get rich?
  • Will it impress people?
  • Will it make people like me?
  • Will it calm my existential angst?
  • Etc.

I am very grateful that none of these is all that important to me, except at times, secondarily. What I mean is that if I become so unhappy that I am so distracted by my unhappiness that I begin to lose focus about how to discern my Leadings, then I recognize this as a problem and realize that addressing my unhappiness may be an important step to getting back on the right track. But what is more important even than happiness vs. unhappiness is: being on the right track.

So, what does it mean then to center one's life around discerning one's Leadings? I think the philosopher Immanuel Kant put it best: it is all about trying to do what is good for the sake of Goodness itself.

Simple to say, very hard to understand well. It requires meditation and discernment!

I may follow up on this in future postings, but for now, I'll end with a reading list:

  • Paul Lacey, Leading and Being Led.
  • Suzanne Farnham, Joseph Gill, R. Taylor McLean, and Susan Ward, Listening Hearts: Discerning Call in Community, (Morehouse Publishing, 1991).
  • Immanuel Kant, Grounding for a Metaphysics of Morals.
  • Hugh Barbour, The Quakers in Puritan England, (Friends United Press, 1964).


  1. Nice expansion on simplicity and discerning our leadings. I also like your mini-reading list. I have read the first two and have found them very helpful, though Listening Hearts, if I recall, is not from a strictly Quaker perspective; whereas Leading and Being Led clearly is.

    I'll update The Good Raised Up, too, to include a link to your post. Thanks!

    Liz, The Good Raised Up

  2. Yes, it is true that Listening Hearts is not from a strictly Quaker perspective, though the authors did draw on Quaker discernment practices in their research (as well as discernment practices from other traditions).

    The Kant reading is dense and difficult but Kant's views do have interesting resonances with Quaker views. In one account of Kant's life that I have read, the author mentions that Kant was raised as a German Pietist, and the author goes on to describe Pietism as being similar to Quakerism! At some point, I would like to look into this more!