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
I have watched the buzz around Invisible Children’s KONY 2012 campaign with interest. It was my teenage daughter who first alerted me to it. Like many teenagers all over the world, she was pumped up about it and wanted to wear the bracelet, hang the posters, and know that she was part of a movement that was stopping an evil man and fixing problems for the children he’d brutalized.
I validated her passion, and then I suggested that, if she really wanted to know how to help people in Uganda, she should speak to people who’ve grown up there – like my friend Nestar – and find out more about what the issues are and how a teenager in Canada can support them.
The last thing I want to do is pour cold water on my daughter’s passion… but… there are many complexities that KONY 2012 ignores. Complexities like… What are the root causes of war? What have people in Uganda already done to try to resolve the situation? How might a campaign like this feed into the dangerous colonialism that North Americans too frequently fall prone to when it comes to the way we want to “fix” problems in other countries? What if the world isn’t really as black and white as the film would have us believe and we can’t simply resolve problems by doing away with bad guys?
The problem is, complexity doesn’t trend on Twitter. You can’t fit it onto a bracelet and sell it to millions of teenagers.
Complexity involves time and effort and frustration and commitment and chaos and depth and… a whole lot of things that make it tough to fit into a marketing plan.
This is an issue I’ve struggled with for a long time, starting with my work as a communicator for a non-profit organization working with partners all over the world to respond to hunger. It’s not easy to explain the complexities around why people are hungry. There is no simple cause and effect that can be fixed by throwing a few dollars at it or sending a letter to the government or wearing a t-shirt. Hunger is about conflict and HIV/AIDS and gender and politics and corruption and… the list goes on and on. To make any long term difference so that people are able to access food on a regular basis instead of becoming reliant on aid agencies, you have to dive into the complexity and dare to get your hands dirty.
Try as I might, I just couldn’t boil those complex messages down to a simple catch phrase. It wasn’t for lack of trying, though – I made several videos when I was working there, and none of them went viral. They didn’t have cute, cherubic children in them, and I didn’t promise an African child I would stop the bad guys who killed his brother.
As anyone in n0n-profit will tell you, though, it’s the simple “give money and you can fix a problem” messages that get the donations and support. “Sponsor a child” or “buy a goat” or “stop a bad guy” paint simple problems with simple solutions and they bring in money. People want to know that their $30 donation will mean that a child can sit down to a meal every day, or that evil will be arrested. Send out a photo of that child whose life has been “fixed”, and it’s an easy sell.
But none of this is simple. You can’t fix all of the complex problems that children face – marginalization, conflict, lack of education, etc. – with your $30 donation (and I’m not suggesting that those organizations who use this type of marketing would ever make such a claim). I wish it were so, but it’s not.
It’s not much different in the work I now do in personal development, facilitation, and teaching. On a regular basis, students ask me for simple answers – templates to ensure they’ll get top grades, rules for writing, etc.. “It’s not that simple,” I say. “This is not a black and white world.”
If I could sell simple, my business probably would have taken off like wildfire. But I can’t sell simple any more than I could create simple videos about how hunger can be resolved. I live in a complex world, and I can’t authentically tell you that anything I offer will fix your life or your community or workplace. I live in a world where babies die, where loved ones attempt suicide, where people loose their jobs, where fathers get killed by tractors, where people who love each other sometimes hurt each other, and where dreams don’t always come true.
I don’t sell magic. I sell hard work and deep dives and surrender and journeys through chaos – nothing that fits into a 140 character tweet. My work is to invite you on the journey through complexity.
Fortunately, though, I believe, as Oliver Wendell Holmes says in the quote at the top of this article, that there is a deeper kind of simplicity on the other side of complexity.
That simplicity is the place where God resides.
It’s about Love – the simplest (and yet most complex) concept in the world.
It’s about the kind of love that “passes understanding”. It’s love that’s been through the battlefield of complexity and lived to tell the tale. It’s love that knows that there is no black or white, but just a lot of shades of grey. It’s love that recognizes that to really help people who are hurting we have to sit in the hurt with them and not try to fix it. It’s love that dares to get messy and dares to forgive.
It’s also about surrender. And trust. And forgiveness. And community. All of those are simple words, but none of them are simplistic. They don’t exist without the complexity.
I have had the honour of doing mandala sessions with several people who, after working their way through the mandala discovery process, have found a path through complexity to a new place of simplicity. I get to witness the a-ha moments as something new arrives that brings them closer to their centre, closer to Spirit, closer to truth, closer to simplicity. It might not make me millions, but I wouldn’t trade this kind of work for anything that fits cleanly on a marketing plan or is easy to sell in 140 characters or less.
This is the hero’s journey we’re talking about – Theseus’ path through the labyrinth, hanging onto a thread. It’s not simple. And yet it takes us to the deeper simplicity on the other side of complexity.
Several years ago, I had the pleasure of meeting Angelina Atyam, an amazing woman whose daughter was abducted, along with her schoolmates, several years ago by Joseph Kony’s army in Uganda. Atyam joined together with other mothers to form Concerned Parents Association and began lobbying for the return of their children. They challenged the government to reconsider its strategy against the LRA. At one point, she even had the opportunity to meet with the President of Uganda.
Clearly feeling threatened by the work of CPA, the LRA sent a message to Atyam that they would return her daughter if she would stop her public relations campaign against them. Atyam countered with an offer to do so if all the girls from St. Mary’s were freed, but the LRA refused it. Her family was appalled that she had turned down the offer, but as she wrote in Marie Claire, “getting my child back would be absolutely wonderful, but if I accepted the offer, I would be turning my back on all the other families. I’d destroy the new community spirit we had created–the hope of getting all the boys and girls back.”
Eventually, her daughter was found and returned to Atyam. By then, the daughter had given birth to two children fathered by the commander of the army. One son went missing in the raid that rescued Atyam’s daughter, but a few weeks later, after he’d wandered in the bush alone with no food for weeks, he was found. Atyam began raising her grandchildren so that her daughter could go to school.
The part of the story that sticks with me the most is what Atyam shared about forgiveness. At one point she realized that she was full of bitterness and that she could not work effectively for peace if she didn’t first experience forgiveness. Working hard to forgive her daughter’s captors, she went to the village where the mother of the commander of the army lived. She told the other women that she did not hold her personally responsible for what had happened to her daughter. She said she forgave the woman and her son for the horrible things that had been done to her family.
That, my friends, is complexity. It’s messy and uncomfortable and courageous.
That’s the kind of complexity that is missing from the KONY 2012 video. Uganda’s challenges will not be resolved by a lot of well-meaning white people wearing wristbands. Uganda’s challenges will be resolved by mothers standing up to evil and then digging deep into their hearts for forgiveness and love.
That love that Angelina Atyam extended to the mother of her daughter’s abductor and that helped her raise the grandchildren who’d been fathered by a murderer? That’s the simplicity on the other side of complexity.