Sunday, January 15, 2012

It's Complicated

"It's really very simple."  The words tumbled from his mouth in a braided mixture of conviction and doubt.  Like the confluence of two streams into one river, the result was both unclear and deceptive. It was obvious that the man in his 70s desperately wanted to believe his bold assertion. Perhaps it was the fear that my legal fees would increase if the matter was portrayed as complex. Maybe it was his inability to come to grips with the convoluted history and intricate detail of his story. Whatever it was, I knew instinctively that he would not be happy with my advice. Inevitably, his emphatic opening statement would either be cause for his embarrassment or he would leave the boardroom frustrated at having wasted his time explaining his “straight-forward” problem.  
It was a potential for family conflict that had been bubbling underground like hot lava, ready to crack the apparently well-ordered surface at the least provocation, leaving behind ugly scars that would never completely heal. The inevitable eruption would splash red-hot anger into hairline cracks in relationships, splitting open the hidden stress fractures that had been created over many years.

The man's wife had died, after a long illness, leaving him confused and companionless. After a short period of mourning he found himself searching in quiet desperation to fill the void he felt. Within a year of his bereavement, an attractive widow sauntered into his life, restoring his sense of romance and reason. He and his second wife were soon married in a simple ceremony attended by their respective children and grandchildren, all of whom seemed uneasy in their celebration of the couple’s happiness. Difficult, unasked and unanswered questions began to form. It was complicated. 
That wedding was several years ago. Now, reality having set in, this gentleman wanted me to draft a will that would equitably distribute his sizable net worth after his death. After enduring two hours of sometimes painful discussion, my client left, dejected, with a list of questions much longer than the one he had arrived with. The "simple" questions: how would he distribute his wealth without alienating his new spouse or children; how could he avoid leaving a legacy of litigation?

There seems to be an unwritten rule when it comes to people's perception of simplicity. The more simple we wanted something to be, the more complex it is in fact. In this way, birth and death may appear to be rather simple brackets for the in-between living. If they are simple, which is debatable, both events often create unimaginable complexity. For within the parentheses called life lay many complex challenges and choices. Despite appearances, the older one gets the more complex one's life can become as  many of our lifelong assumptions are dashed on the rocks of reality. 
In my case, I held onto a delusion of uncompromised capacity to enjoy life as I age, only to have it disrupted by disease and the diverse menu of disabilities it drags along. Only lately have I begun to recognize my oversimplification of my diagnosis: Parkinson's disease. Perhaps, due to the slow onset of the disease in my case, the potential peril has been, until lately, like lava creeping only modestly threateningly down the slopes of a somewhat distant volcano.  I have successfully pushed self-assessment and its haunting cross-examination to the periphery of my day-to-day life. But maybe, like my client, my doomed and deluded attempt to remain in control of life cannot survive. I must engage with the complexity of it all.

Life is complicated. People are complex. We must understand what we can. Then marvel at the mysteries that remain.

“Abandon the urge to simplify everything,
 to look for formulas and easy answers,
and to begin to think multidimensionally,
to glory in the mystery and paradoxes of life,
not to be dismayed by the multitude of causes and consequences
that are inherent in each experience -- to appreciate the fact that life is complex.”
M. Scott Peck

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