It’s complicated

“inherent in the nature of a complex system is that it’s always a little broken. Complex systems only work to the extent that we are always fixing them.”

– Cory Doctorow, quoted in Vintage Tomorrows p60

I can’t decide if I like this quote because it summarized all I love about complex systems – or all I love about Simplicity. See, at heart, I’m a tinkerer. Always have been. I love working with my hands and I love knowing how things work. I haven’t always been able to indulge this love, and I’m certainly not claiming to always end up with a working specimen when I’m done with the teardown…

More recently I’ve come to the realization that perhaps I do better tinkering in a more theoretical arena. By that I mean, I tend to hurt myself when tools are involved. That or I put unseemly holes in the drywall. This has led to me spending even more time reading – and thinking about what I read. A potentially dangerous situation, I know. Between reading about the lives of some of the great philosophers, of history as well as contemporary, social commentary, simplicity, local economies, behavioral economics, and some mythology – my thoughts can certainly go in interesting directions.

200 words to find the point – things aren’t looking so good right now, and yet there are many signs of hope.

Looking at that last line, something isn’t right. It’s not the sentiment, that’s exactly what I was trying to say. It’s the wording. “signs of hope,” it just sounds so…glass half empty. So, if things in general aren’t looking so hot, yet they aren’t to that “where are we going and why am I in this handbasket” stage – where does that leave us and how to describe it?

Are good things happening despite all that’s going on? Or because of all that’s going on? Can’t it be some of both? I see the situation with climate change, skyrocketing obesity levels, heck even global inequality – all are acting as a catalyst for some truly amazing actions and reactions. The kind of change that is sustainable (in the true meaning of the word), that starts at the bottom and makes it’s way as far up as is necessary.* The exceedingly complex system we live in, call it what you will – Western Civilization, Consumer Culture, whatever – is broken and in need of some serious tinkering in order to fix it.

Movements like Transition Towns, 350.org, SmartTowns, OccupyDebt, Slow Money, Voluntary Simplicity, and the many others I don’t know about yet are making more of a concrete difference than their small sizes would seem to indicate is possible. They work because for every single person who gets involved there are at least 10 who are made aware of the issues at hand. And for every 10 there is at least one who will get involved at a substantive level and in turn influence 10 more, etc, etc. These groups are doing the Tinkering that highlights what a complex system we live in.

This falls somewhere between the kind of change Quinn (if you haven’t read Daniel Quinn, you need to. Now.) advocates in his writings and what the more mainstream groups are all about (that is advocating for change starting at the highest level they can reach). All are valid routes to action, and it will ultimately take people tinkering at every level to affect the kind of change that’s needed. There are several fundamental misunderstandings that will need to be fixed before these sort of changes can become more mainstream. First on that list for me is that Tinkering necessarily means breaking things, and that that’s necessarily a bad thing. It’s not. We learn from our mistakes, do some more tinkering and try again. More on that later, for now, the punchline is this: I for one see the more grassroots – yet highly visible and impactful – route as our best chance to effect real, substantial change. One person at a time.

* Not all change has to make it to the top. Who’s to say where that is anyway? The groups listed here see systemic change as their goal, who’s to say that can’t happen DESPITE those in power rather than BECAUSE of them?

You are not your story

Western culture has a bad habit. Well, several actually, but that’s the subject of another blog. Or a Masters level seminar. Anyway, the habit I want to talk about here is our felt need to have a backstory for…well, everything. This often extends to ourselves and how we view ourselves in the context of our daily lives.

We listen to what others say about us, combine that with what we think we want our lives to look like, or what we think we stand for, and voila – we end up with a narrative, often with a side order of low self-esteem and unreasonable expectations for good measure.

And that’s where I want to pick up the story (pun fully intended) – after we’ve built this narrative around these externally derived concepts of ourselves. First, you need to understand that these stories often serve a valid purpose. They can give us the motivation we need to keep going when things get difficult. They can smooth the bumps in life.

However, these narratives can also lead us astray – to a false sense of self that’s based on the story and not on who we truly are.

The tricky part is recognizing when you start telling yourself such a story, then being able to separate your actual, present self from the version in the narrative. Start by realizing that you’re constructing the story around past events. Because that’s all you have to build them around, events you remember and can put yourself back into in order to sort out what’s happening now. You’re telling yourself, “something like this happened once, and here’s how I handled it.” This is often followed by a critical assessment of how you handled it and how your past self failed in some way. Here comes the self-doubt.

Now step back from the story you’ve constructed and realize that this is not who you are. This is an event from your past. Your present self has learned from that past event and is attempting to translate what happened and make it relevant to the present.

Let go of the story and allow yourself to live now.

“Nothing happens for a reason, but everything that happens has purpose.”

– Megan Hollingsworth

Saying that an event happened for a reason shifts accountability (blame) to something that happened before that event – and since that precipitating event is in the past, there’s nothing that can be done. This conveniently shifts any impetus to take action off your present self, since all you can affect is now.

However, saying that “everything that happens has purpose,” now that’s a different story (I know, I know, again with the puns). Now you’re saying that the event happened in order to affect something that hasn’t happened yet. Now the focus is on the future, something that your actions in the present can certainly impact.

Suddenly, your future is firmly in your hands and rests on what you do now, in the present – in reaction to the event in question.

“It’s not what happens to you, but how you react to it that matters.”

– Epictetus

This follows from the first quote, and Epictetus’ words ring true today – two thousand years after he said them. Granted, he was a Stoic philosopher who believed that all external events happen as a result of fate and should be accepted without fuss. I’m not advocating that extreme a view, I just want to take it far enough to adopt an outsider’s view of events in order to learn from them and carry that lesson forward.

If you can make this perspective shift, even if only when you remember this article, imagine the changes you can affect. Instead of saying, “why did that happen to me?” What you’re saying is, “what can I do with this right now to affect my future positively?”

You’ve just taken the negative experience of dwelling on the past why and turned it into the positive experience of figuring out the future how.

Let me tell you about Frank

It may be a stretch to call him a friend, I mean, I haven’t actually seen the guy in 20 years. But back in the day, we were tight. I taught skiing with Frank (do I have to tell you that’s not his real name?). We also lived in close quarters with ~40 of our closest friends in 3-high bunks at the school’s lodge all weekend for 13 weeks a year. So, we got to know one another. This is the story that sticks out in my mind, even after 20 years. Keep in mind, this story relates to Frank, there were others present who will have parts to play in later stories. Today is all about Frank.

Several of us were up early one Saturday morning, and since the morning meeting wasn’t until 10:00, we decided we had time to take a couple of runs, there was fresh snow out there calling to us. On with the gear, grab the skis, chug some horrible coffee, and we’re off. Runs 1 and 2 go smoothly, nice fresh snow, make some turns, hit the lift line, repeat. Then run 3 begins. Everything is fine until Frank utters the words I had come to fear when they come out of his mouth, “watch this.”

Not as bad, nor bone-chilling, nor, if I’m honest, funny – as when preceded with “hold my beer…” but still.

He proceeds to huck himself off the edge of the trail we’re on, landing somewhere ~30 feet into the woods below – which may as well have been somewhere over the rainbow given the ease with which you can find someone buried in snow deeper than they are tall. I skied over to the brink and yelled “Frank?!?! Dude?!?!” approximately 47 times before I heard a faint “ooooooover heeeeeeeere” and saw the very tip of a ski pole waving back and forth.

In I wade, muttering things like “…moron…what a dipshit…who does that…?!?!” as I shuffled. Arriving at the edge of a crater roughly 10’ across, I looked down to see partially buried goggles and a gloved hand waving said pole. He put the pole down long enough to wipe off his face, exposing an ear to ear grin.

Dipshit.

“Little help here?” He says all nonchalant and stuff. “Sigh,” is my reply. I then commence beating on the snow around the edge of the crater. It’s sorta like a dowsing rod, except I’m looking for the rest of a dipshit, not water.

~79 swings later I make contact. With his shinbone. Just above the edge of his ski boot. Whoops. That ear-to-ear grin? Yeah, that left. Replacing it was a grimace spewing a string of expletives I’m glad his class of 10-year-olds wasn’t around to hear, combined with a handful of choice curses relating to my mother and all potential future generations of my family. Have I mentioned that Frank is a fundamentalist Christian? Because he is.

At this point we’re nearly late for lessons, never mind the meeting we missed by a good margin. I had sent the rest of the group ahead to let folks know what was going on, leading to one of the managers actually coming by us on the hill to see if we needed help/ski patrol/an exorcist (he arrived just about halfway through the expletive string, just in time to hear the curses). The two of us worked together to hoist Frank out of the snow and be sure nothing was broken.

Once we had verified that, Mr. Manager suggested that I might want to remove myself to my class meeting point. I started to say that my assistant could greet our class when he suggested that the issue wasn’t me greeting my class right now, rather he was concerned about Frank causing permanent bodily harm to my person, leading to me not being able to greet my class anymore that season.

Right. That.

I dug myself out post haste and hit the trail.

There is a happy ending to this introduction to the wonder of Frank – he was able to laugh about it over beers at the end of the day.

So there’s that.