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The Complexity of Being a Human

Several times in the many years I’ve been going to therapy, after I've given a long description of the recent events of my life and have asked for my therapist’s insights, she has begun with something that always makes me laugh. “Well, it’s very complex,” she will say. She laughs, too, because clearly there is a lot to each of our lives, but it is always a good reminder. Thinking of my life as complex felt somewhat overwhelming at first, but I eventually learned to see it more as a soft place to land when I needed to. The truth is, if we’re slogging through some tough issues and ideas and changes in our lives, it’s going to be a slog. There’s no simple way to get everything to line up perfectly as if we are Rubik’s Cube savants.

Still, the real complexity of living a full life is something I need to remind myself of practically daily. When I don’t, I realize that I’m chastising myself for holding some middle ground opinion or feeling wishy washy about a hard topic. There is a huge part of me that wants life to be simpler and easier than this. As much as I relish the richness of ideas and art and wonder, occasionally I just want things to follow a clear-cut, if/then formula. But I know I would tire of this, and very soon it would take all the squinting I could muster to try and accept that this is all there is.

Sometimes it’s easy if we follow our own version of The Golden Rule, but how do we “do unto” those who do harm to the people we love or support or root for?

I’ve been reading lately about social positionality—a term used to describe our social identities based on elements like race, class, gender, and sexuality, among others. In essence this also affects how we understand and see the world. When I consider something like this, I can see immediately that nothing is all that black and white. As a 70-year-old, white, middle-class, lesbian, homeowner, Prozac-taker and retired educator, I can immediately see a variety of positions from which I might gaze upon the world. And not all of those views are congruent.

Most of us grew up being taught “right from wrong,” as if it were all that simple. Some of our fathers and mothers taught us “the way” to do things and most of our employers reinforced these ideas at least somewhat consciously. It’s no surprise that at least a few of us might feel a little confused and uncertain about where we stand on every social, political, or personal issue. Sometimes it’s easiest if we follow our own version of The Golden Rule, but how do we “do unto” those who do harm to the people we love or support or root for? Sometimes, the more complex a situation becomes, the more I find myself retreating to a black and white corner.

A surprise in my most recent retirement has been the discovery that, although the open time is freeing and relaxing, making my own rules is less so. I’ve grown accustomed to doing things a certain way and altering that stance or that schedule is a little like petting the cat backwards. And now, more than ever, I can actually see a much larger, broader experience above the edge of the confined world of work. If I can do anything with my time, and people are struggling and suffering, why would I do anything but try to help them? And yet, there are also other things I want to do, and I find myself having to make complicated decisions about how I want to live at this time in my life.

The bottom line is my constant reminder: things are very complex. And it helps no one for me to perseverate about finding the “right thing” to do or say. What’s important, I think, is that I live as close to my values as I can, so that I am kind to people, I listen, I share what I am able to share, and I try to make an authentic connection whenever I can. It also helps to remind myself that, beyond those basics, the answers look like a scary math problem from 8th grade. But I’m showing up every day—whatever that looks like on the day in question. I’m paying attention to how it feels to other people to be in this same world, and I’m taking that in. My goal, above all else, I think, is to stand as confidently as I can in myself, to let the world unfold as it does, and to offer whatever I can in the moment.


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