I would not give a fig for the simplicity this side of complexity, but I would give my life for the simplicity on the other side of complexity.
–Oliver Wendell Holmes
It took the American Civil War to disillusion and dispirit young Oliver Wendell Holmes. As an idealist, Oliver wanted to make a difference and entered the war. Certain his Harvard education equipped him for everything, he entered the fight. He thought he knew what to do and what the issues were. So he charged forward, only to be severely wounded in battle and set to the side.
In his youth and inexperience, he lived simplistically, moving towards life with certainty. He didn’t realize his understanding was far less than the scope of what was happening.
After the war, he understood more of what he didn’t know. Entering law, he moved toward the complexity of human society and relationships. Over and over he fought for clarity in changing times until he became known as the “the great dissenter.” He was one man who would not go with the letter of the law but looked beyond it for the true meaning of justice.
When we refuse to engage life merely on what we know but push into what we don’t know, we move from simplistic into complexity…or…you could also say complication. How wearying it is when life complicates and tangles in knots and puzzles not easily solved.
Yet, as Oliver discovered, when we persevere through the complexity, however long it may take, what we find at the end is the simplicity of “tried truth”…truth that emerges as its surroundings are stripped away by what we come to understand about life. About God. About ourselves and those we love.
When we persevere, daring to shed what we think we know, we humbly enter confusion in order to find truth. It’s there we find simple truth has taken root within. Rooted truth grows and displaces complexity. It re-orders complication and puts it in its proper place.
All of a sudden what seemed so complicated and heavy becomes simple and light. The uncovered essence is truth on which we can plant our feet and stand firmly. It rings with the conviction of having been tested, probed, reworked and reimagined until what is left is unvarnished truth.
Now we can live with simplicity. Not because we have naively stayed in a lack of understanding or denied how complex life is. We live in simplicity because it is the by-product of living in truth. When we live in truth, it changes us, and the world too.
Oliver Wendell Holmes got his wish. He is remembered as one of the greatest justices of the US Supreme Court. He made a difference that lasts to today.
ACTION: What stirs in you as you think of Oliver? How might his story intersect with yours? What kind of perseverance is needed to move through the complexities you face?
If you were to draw an image representing simplistic moving through complexity to simplicity on the other side, how would you draw it? What does it look like to you? On you?