Many challenges we're dealing with can be attributed to the complexity of modern life.
Our lives are interconnected in unprecedented ways and something that happens in one part of the world can disrupt the lives of people far away.
The same is also true in personal lives. For instance, I often talk to clients who feel overwhelmed by all the options in front of them and don't know which path to take, whether in business and work, or elsewhere in life.
Having a sheer unlimited amount of options is something our ancestors didn't experience to the same extent. It's perhaps no surprise that the word complexity was only first recorded in 1715-25.
Today, we live in a world of excess. We arguably enjoy more freedom and choice than humans at any other time in history.
However, all that freedom and optionality introduces even more complexity to our lives. So, how can we learn to handle that?
I think that entertainment (films, books, etc.) can help us get more comfortable with complexity. That is, if we choose the right entertainment.
One famously complex example that I've written about previously is the movie "Cloud Atlas." Another one is Ursula Le Guin's novel "The Dispossessed."
Today, I'd like to share another example with you that can help us move out of black-and-white thinking: "Star Wars: The Last Jedi."
(This contains spoilers for "Star Wars: The Last Jedi.")
Complexity in "Star Wars: The Last Jedi"
“That’s not… what I expected.”
I stared at the screen.
“Star Wars: The Last Jedi”wasn’t at all what I had expected.
As the closing credits rolled, I noticed how surprised I was — in a good way.
Here are some of the things that really stood out to me:
- Someone from the dark side (Kylo Ren) got tempted by the light.
- The protagonist from the light (Rey) ventured into the darkness, to see what was there.
- The seemingly infallible Jedi (Luke Skywalker) not only failed his student, but also turned him to the dark side.
It’s a lot.
What really happened?
Simply put, the movie blurred the rigid boundaries between good and bad, between light and dark.
It introduced complexity into the situation, a complexity that also exists in the real world.
Now, I love epic stories like “Lord of the Rings” that pit “good” vs. “evil.”
Us humans seem to long for these tales where light and darkness clash. And yet, these clashes can also seem a bit infantile — because they are so simple.
But life isn’t.
And maybe art shouldn’t be, too. As Christopher Vogler wrote in The Writer’s Journey,
“Every villain is a hero of his or her own story.”
One-dimensional villains negate the complexity of life
In any conflict, both sides have their own perspective and, typically, neither sides views themselves as “the baddies.”
Now, I’m treading dangerous territory here. Saying that different people have different perspectives doesn’t mean that all are necessarily equally justified — lest I find myself in a postmodern morass, with no single guiding principle left.
So, just because I acknowledge that every villain is the hero of their story doesn’t mean that I have to see them as the hero, too. It just means that it’s good to grow out of a narrow-minded, binary perspective.
Of course, in “The Last Jedi” Rey is a better person than her counterpart on the dark side.
And yet, Kylo is not a monster, just as Rey is not a saint.
They are human beings with the ability to do good, and the ability to do evil, and on that spectrum, they gravitate towards different poles.
Life is not simple
Humans like to tell stories in binary terms… simple, plausible — and often false.
The hypothetical jerk who so rudely ditched my sweet friend? I bet the story sounds different from his perspective.
(And, even though my friend’s runaway partner has a different perspective, he might still be a self-absorbent, emotionally immature prick. “Might” being the operative word here.)
I can also look at history that way.
For instance, in the legendary confrontation in ancient Rome between consul Marcus Tullius Cicero and senator Lucius Sergius Catilina (Catiline), was the latter the bad guy Cicero described him to be?
Or did Cicero use his prolific oratory skills to paint him in an overly negative light?
Complexity is challenging
Once complexity enters a situation, it gets…complicated.
Binary black and white narratives tend to protect one’s ascribed worldview (“I’m right, you’re wrong.”)
In contrast, more complex ones typically challenge it. (“Hmm, maybe I’m not as right as I thought I was? And maybe, just maybe, I can see your point?”)
I believe one of the reasons “Star Wars: The Last Jedi” received such a mixed reception (critics loved it, the audience — not so much), is because it introduced more complexity to the conflict between the light and the dark side.
As Andrés Ruiz put it in his excellent article about the movie:
“the modern Star Wars fanbase can be divided into two camps: Star Wars as black and white idealist escapism, and Star Wars as shades of grey realism.”
I think the same is true for entertainment in general. Not everyone wants complexity all the time, lest of all when it comes to entertainment.
And while I think black and white simplicity can be appealing, there’s also so much that can be gained from complexity, including a better understanding of reality. True, this might require me to update my own worldview. But, why would I want to hold onto an inaccurate worldview anyway?
As the English poet David Whyte so succinctly put it:
“Stop trying to change reality by attempting to eliminate complexity.”
This movie can help you learn to love complexity more.
This article was first published on Elephant Journal.
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