Leaving Room For “It’s Complicated”

It is possible that we have far too honest of conversations with our kids. We try to keep it age appropriate, but I probably spend too much time overcorrecting a childhood where I was encouraged to believe what I was told without challenge or discussion of perspectives. So our kids ask questions. A lot of questions. We try to be as honest as possible, even when our son is staring me down asking me if Santa Claus is real (leading to an unfortunate Christmas Eve reveal because “what do you think?” wasn’t a good enough answer) to the mechanics of sex when our daughter was 10. Sometimes it’s refreshing, sometimes it’s uncomfortable, but always it is important and keeps the door to communication open.

The hard part about wanting to be honest with our kids is that sometimes the answers aren’t easy. We don’t always have a ready response. Sometimes we look up the answer and other times I have to give them an honest “I don’t know.” And sometimes the answer is, “It’s complicated.” Like many adults who are several times their age, they hate that answer, but there are times when it is just the best answer we can give them.

Because it is. Life is complicated. Even seemingly black and white moral proclamations (such as “do not kill”) can be muddied by the realities of self-defense and war, whether just or unjust. Yet our discussions about these topics are often boiled down in the simplest of terms. When people start asking questions we get defensive of our position and don’t want to consider that maybe our position is less nuanced than we believed it to be. Maybe we need to learn more, ask more questions, and seek the experience of others.

A couple weeks ago I finally got my wish and was polled for the upcoming election. I had been waiting for years to get a phone call asking how I feel about those running and the path forward. There were questions I could easily answer. I know who I’m voting for in most of the major races, but when it comes to the many judges and other positions down the ballot, I have a lot of homework to do before I’m willing to commit.

The whole conversation was going pretty well considering I didn’t know everyone who was running. Then the pollster asked me how I felt about Joe Biden’s plans for COVID-19. She wanted a clean, simple “yes” or “no.” I paused. I knew enough to say that I agreed to parts of the plan but I couldn’t agree with all of it. I finally said, “it’s complicated.” She didn’t know what to do with the answer and I made it clear that there are just some things for which a simple “agree” or “disagree” just isn’t possible. There are too many factors to consider, too many variables in the equation.

Maybe that’s why we’ve lost the ability to compromise as a country; we’ve become so focused on defending our position that we’ve stopped looking at the reality of the complexities of the stances we’ve risked losing friendships over. It’s led to a two-dimensional view of our three-dimensional world.

Refusing to see things as complicated forces us to ignore human emotion and experience. It forces us to look past the pain and allows us to bypass empathy in our attempt to score a win. It looks at the imperfection of human existence and boils it down to a single issue existing in a vacuum, unaffected by the many things that regularly disrupt our days.

It’s ok to be messy and to admit that you don’t have clean, clear answers to most of the world’s problems. It’s ok because there isn’t a single right answer. We aren’t going to abolish poverty with Universal Basic Income. We aren’t going to eliminate drug addiction by decriminalizing it and forcing people to get help. We aren’t going to end abortion by making it illegal. We aren’t going to fix unemployment with a single stimulus package. We aren’t going to save the planet with a New Green Deal.

But more often than not, we just need a place to start. We need a big idea to get the other solutions flowing. We need strong debate that embraces complicated and works with it, not against it.

Because for many of the above issues, we’ve wasted too much time already.

We need to stop denying our humanness. We are individuals with experiences that drive our ideas and opinions. It’s the kind of thing that can convince a law enforcement officer to be for the decriminalization of certain drugs or an oil executive to invest in green energy. The reality is that when we insist that our views and positions have to be simple and straightforward we aren’t being intellectually honest.

Recognizing this truth is the first step away from tribalism. It is a step towards unity. It seeks empathy and understanding over being right. It seeks flexibility and solutions over winning.

Our country is lost and divided. We have stopped seeing the beauty in the complex. We need to open our hearts to it once again if we’re ever going to find the healing we desperately need.

4 Comments

Thoughtful and nuanced responses welcome!

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