When in Doubt, Complicate

About ten years ago, I studied with a poet named Deborah Digges. I have often remembered one of her writing suggestions: “When in doubt, complicate.” I’ve wrestled with this statement, alternately appreciating and resisting the directive to purposefully move towards what’s tangled and complex.

We live in a culture where contradictions abound. The notion of simplifying, of “simple” living, holds incredible appeal to all of us who feel overwhelmed by the accelerated pace of life and the sheer amount of stuff and information we are surrounded and inundated by – in our homes, at work, our schedules, the media and our own heads. It is challenging enough to get quiet and to clear the literal and metaphorical space we need in order to hear our own voices. So why complicate? Well, for one thing, it’s real. Because the undeniable fact is that we are complicated beings.

I come down on the side of holding complicated and simple simultaneously. The trap of the either/or – red state, blue state – is so pervasive, especially because we aren’t really taught that it’s okay for things to be complicated. We all know that nobody’s identity fits into a census box. We are not working moms or stay-at-home moms. Black, white, rich, poor, female, male. So much becomes available when we begin to inhabit the “yes, and” space of our complicatedness. Denying it causes suffering, shame, isolation. I have a neighbor who majored in Environmental Studies and feels guilty about sunning on her motorboat on the lake all summer; a colleague who is passionate about her work in the nonprofit world but feels like she’s “supposed” to be home more with her kids. The runner/yogi/mama who secretly smoked clove cigarettes: even close friends were shocked to learn that I was a “closet” smoker. Walt Whitman, of course, said it best:

Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)

We’re all – as a friend so beautifully phrased it recently – patchwork quilts. Imagine that quilt draped heavily over your resting body, the kind that keeps revealing new patterns you never noticed before, fraying here, sturdy there, some squares fading and others bright, soft, worn, comfortable in your own skin. It’s like the difference between homegrown and mass-produced. The local stuff might be funkier and less predictable, and that’s what gives it value. You are a homemade product, one of a kind.

Everything in nature, including aspects of ourselves, needs a dance partner. We need to clear enough space – in our lives, on our desks and in our datebooks – for complicated and simple to dance together. I want to trust that the tension between “opposites” is in fact a source of energy and vitality, a place that gives rise to creativity and change and beauty and discovery. On the one hand, I want to agree with Deborah: When in doubt, complicate. After all, life could get kind of stale if things were all status quo. And on the other hand – I love the character of Tevye in “Fiddler on the Roof” – when we are overly invested in things being complicated, we are less present to what’s right before us. We succumb to unnecessary confusion and miss out on so many simple pleasures that are right here for the taking.

I have so many questions. What do you learn about yourself when you relax and allow for so-called contradictions to co-exist? When in doubt, pay attention. When in doubt, notice the doubt. Sit with the complications. Take note of what does come easily to you. What’s naturally simple that you’re hellbent on complicating? And what’s really complicated that you’d like to simplify? What “opposites” are dancing around you – in you – right now?


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