The Beauty of Complexity

Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf interviewed by Christiane Amanpour on ABC News’ This Week Sunday morning made a comment worth noting, something to the effect that the controversy over the Ground Zero Mosque is not a battle between Islam and the West; it is a battle between moderates and extremists of all faiths.

I agree. Looking at the mosque issue objectively, and putting aside for the moment the understandable emotions of the 9-11 families, it’s clear that we have two groups of extremists pulling from what on the surface seems to be opposite ends of the spectrum but actuality are not. Whether the mosque is built or moved, either way it’s a victory for one of these small bands of extremists who seek to impose their terms on our free society. Whichever side prevails, we all lose. Score one for extremism.

However, what disturbs me more than extremism right now is complacency.

For instance, a young blogger on the Washington Post, Ezra Klein says that the mosque issue is a non-story and “now the only thing to do is to wait for it to pass.” While everyone is entitled to their opinion, I have to say I don’t think that is much of one.

I can understand frustration, that’s natural. If it isn’t one thing, it’s another, and then another . . . And yet, that’s the point. Waiting for the mosque issue to pass is not a solution, because there will be another issue after that, and another . . . Do we give up on all of them? Screw it? I don’t care anymore?

Edward Norton in 25th Hour

It reminds me of the character Monty Brogan (Edward Norton) in Spike Lee’s film 25th Hour, who while standing in the men’s bathroom and talking to himself in a mirror, goes through a long list of all the groups of people he’d like to tell to go screw themselves. It’s a great soliloquy and every word in it is right on. However, it’s also a purely emotional and immature reaction, born out of his frustration, which at the end of the scene, Marty realizes. He seems to finally come to terms with the fact that he responsible for himself and his situation.

I don’t think we gain very much reacting to things with ‘screw this” and “screw that” and “this too shall pass” kinds of attitude. At best, maybe we buy some time. Until the next situation comes around.

It’s also a shirking of responsibility. We are all in this together, like it or not, and when the stakes are so high we cannot avoid taking responsibility, whether we are two blocks from the center point or two hundred, or even thousands of miles away.

And what are the stakes? Well, it’s life or death. By life, I mean the freedom to live and think as you choose. By death, I am referring to something that Norman Cousins once said, “Death is not the greatest loss in life. The greatest loss is what dies inside us while we live.” I can’t help but feel that the greatest loss here is not if extremism wins the day, but if complacency does.

To live in complacency, to me, is tantamount to presiding over the funeral of a vital part of our human spirit. As society is also a living organism, it needs to be fully alive in order to survive. This goes straight to the heart of the matter, because part of the frustration is over the fact that the same old ways of addressing these problems don’t seem to work. At the same time, complacency is also reacting out of the old patterns we have established in both our individual lives and in society.

Instead of giving up, we could set about finding new solutions, new ways to think about these situations. We desperately need new thinking. We could use a new and deeper understanding of tolerance, for example. I have in mind something akin to what Prof. Robert Thurman calls “the tolerance of cognitive dissonance, the ability to cope with the beauty of complexity.”

I am taking him somewhat out of context, but I think that on one level “tolerance” here means being okay, even appreciating, the complexity of things. It does not mean to back away from complex issues, to fall back into old patterns of thought. Sometimes the word ‘cope’ seems to convey complacency, even helplessness, as in “coping with life’s stresses,” almost suggesting a kind of surrender, but to ‘cope’ actually means to struggle with something, evenhandedly, and most importantly, with some degree of success.

In business, successful thinking means emphasizing long-term potential over short-term goals, and successful entrepreneurs do not give in to either frustration or complacency. If we challenge the way we view things and try to cultivate a deeper understanding of the issues at hand, this is the sort of inner action that can create a ripple effect in our collective unconscious, and might bring us to some new solutions for these old and persistent problems.

By the way, I think Spike Lee is one of the best directors working today. Every one of his films is innovative, both visually and in terms of narrative. He consistently looks for new ways to tell a story. He’s not afraid to tackle thorny issues or back way from hard questions. While he rarely provides an answer, there’s nothing complacent about his movies. I certainly have the feeling that he is someone who understands and appreciates “the beauty of complexity.”

If you want to read the soliloquy from 25th Hour, go here and scroll down. You’ll know it when you see it.


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