Simplicity and its antonyms

I recently read (via Facebook) a very interesting blog post about Quaker testimonies. It’s good; I suggest you go and read it. The main question it addresses is ‘why do Quakers have testimonies?’ which is an excellent thing to ask and deserves attention.

However, one stray comment in it attracted my attention for other reasons – in talking about the modern list of the testimonies, Derek points out that we are hardly alone in wanting peace, truth, simplicity, etc. Indeed, he says we are unlikely to meet people “who would say they believe in violence, dishonesty, discrimination, and complexity”. Well, I think there a few around for the first three – quite a lot of people can accept dishonesty when it’s to their benefit, for example. The last one, though, seems like a misplaced word. I’m a Quaker. I try and live out a testimony to simplicity as best I can. But I don’t think it’s opposed to complexity.

Perhaps it helps to begin by thinking about another Quaker word, now a bit out of fashion but a traditional and useful one: plain. Think of plain dress, plain speech, use of plain names, and so forth. The opposite of plain is decorated. Dress which is un-plain is fancy, in lots of colours, lots of patterns, etc. A plain name is just a name, with no title or other additions. Plain speech can perfectly well use complex sentences, with sub-clauses and other features, but it aims to say what needs to be said without untruth, flattery, or embellishment.

Complexity, on the other hand, is a feature of the world – and denying it doesn’t help. At the beginning of that post, Derek talks about his nephew asking about how plants grow. Photosynthesis is a very complex process, which is vital to life on earth, and yet I don’t take plants – which are just going about their ordinary business of living – to be un-plain. (Putting flowers on the Meeting House table we can debate.) Plainness might be opposed to unnecessary additions of extra complications. My understanding of plainness in dress leads me to own a small number of basic and hard wearing shoes, for example, rather than a pair for every day of the year. Complexity isn’t a problem, though – as the computer programmers say, it’s a feature, not a bug – and wishing for ‘simplicity’ won’t take it away.

As I pray over the very complex situation in Syria at the moment, a situation which seems to be  short on plain speaking, perhaps I won’t try to simplify things, but to understand their complexities and express them plainly.


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