From Simplicity to Simplism – and Back?


1. The Need to Simplify and Its Danger

We human beings learn, survive, and prosper by simplifying our experiences and perceptions of the world around us and of ourselves in relation to that world which, of course, includes other people. Without simplifying, we would not survive because we would be unable to make sense of our lives or our own thoughts and feelings.

To process reality, we must simplify and group our experiences. Think of a filing cabinet. What good would it do me to put each individual paper or document into a folder all its own? If I had a thousand papers to file, I would need a thousand folders, and the label for each folder would be nothing more than the first few words on the paper. How would I find anything? For the filing system to be useful, I must group papers according to kind: all the bank statements in one folder, recipes in another, business letters in yet another. If I have many business letters, then I must separate them according to a finer differentiation of kind. Only then can I find what I need when I need it. In a rather analogous way, our minds file experiences and the feelings attached to them.

Does fear, for example, always feel exactly the same, and is it triggered by exactly identical experiences? No, of course not, but we group the experiences under the category of fear; we put those experiences into our fear file, so to speak. The child does not know she’s grouping her experiences, but she is. That’s how she learns what to fear and how much.

As she grows, she will need to make more internal folders because there are fears and, then, there are fears. Dangers must be assessed; otherwise life would terrify her daily. We speak of people who are afraid of their own shadows because they don’t differentiate one suspected danger from another, and so fear dominates their responses to life. Without fear, we would be unlikely to keep ourselves safe and sound or even to survive. Without assessing the dangers and managing our fears, we cannot function capably in life.

Experience counts, both positively and negatively. The child savaged by a large dog may, understandably, grow into an adult afraid of large dogs or, maybe, all dogs or even all animals. Here we see a sign of the danger in our native ability to simplify and manage. We must simplify, and we must categorize in order to group together similar experiences and perceptions even though they may not be so genuinely similar as we make them in our minds. Right here the need to simplify life and manage our feelings can turn into prejudice. Mark Twain wrote this:

We should be careful to get out of an experience only the wisdom that is in it – and stop there; lest we be like the cat that sits down on a hot stove-lid. She will never sit down on a hot stove-lid again – and that is well; but also she will never sit down on a cold one anymore (Pudd’nhead Wilson’s New Calendar in Following the Equator).

Instead of concluding that a hot stove lid makes a painful seat, the cat decides a stove lid makes a bad seat. For the cat, that oversimplification and its resulting false generalization are fine, even though the cat is now prejudiced against stove lids disregarding the fact that some are hot and some cold. So what? How does it matter for a cat? In human beings, such prejudice causes terrible problems for us, each other, and our world.

This blog post is intended to be the first in a series about simplism. People regard as wise the acronym KISS meaning, “Keep it simple, stupid.” If stupid wishes to remain comfortably stupid, that advice freely applied works well (until it doesn’t), but complex situations and issues are better seen in their complexity, especially when they involve human beings, whose lives are never simple even when they appear so to the eye of prejudice. Children’s lives are quite complex, as are children themselves, who are learning and developing at a much faster rate than we adults.

Balance is needed. To learn from experience, process our daily lives, and manage our feelings as well as our relationships and responsibilities, we must simplify and categorize. We cannot treat each new event, each experience, as utterly new and unique. We would exist in chaos. We would see life through kaleidoscope eyes. Nothing would make sense, and we would not learn how to deal with anything. When, however, simplification leads to simplism, it causes us trouble and grief.