Thinking is a complex process. How we get from A to B says a lot about the ways our minds work. As was mentioned in Stuart Sim and Borin Van Loon’s book, Introducing Critical Theory, “How we arrive at value judgments, and, indeed, whether we can arrive at value judgments, are now at least as important considerations as what the actual value judgments themselves are.” But the process of coming to conclusions on values can be daunting; it is a complex process of the consolidation of reason, experience, emotions, social factors, etc. So how do we cut to the marrow of the complexities and learn to think?
This is where the concept of mental maps comes in use. Shane Parrish, in his book The Great Mental Models, delves into the idea of a map as a metaphor for mental models. Maps can provide a frame of reference, but one must realize that maps are a reduction of the complexities of geography, national and international boundary lines, locations, and even the distribution of people. In the same way, mental models must be taken into the same consideration. Parrish writes, “Still, in using maps, abstractions, and models, we must always be wise to their limitations. They are by definition, reductions of something far more complex.”
At the same time, there is a need to cut through complexity to understand the core of a problem. As humans, we are fantastic at complicating the simplest of ideas. I remember in high school when we were discussing The Scarlet Letter, there was a moment when we were discussing the significance of a rosebush. At this point, I can’t remember the details of that discussion, but what stood out among all the complex discourse on that bush was this statement: “Sometimes a rosebush is just a rosebush.” Since then, that has become a personal mantra that I use when ideas get too complicated.
What is the crux of an issue? How do you explain a concept in a way that is accessible to people who have little to no background knowledge on a subject? In my undergrad program, one of my professors told us that if you can boil a theological concept down to the point where you can explain it to a child, it means you have mastered that concept. Again, it’s a reduction, but when people understand the basic notion of the idea, then it can be unpacked in more detail later.
Last week, I talked about Drizzt Do’Urden from R.A. Salvatore’s The Legend of Drizzt series. Since then, I’ve finished what’s been written of the series so far, and have some new insights onto the issue of his worldview. To summarize the previous outline, Drizzt’s worldview and belief in the goddess he follows was challenged when his own morals did not align with a decree from the goddess. After being tasked to kill the Demogorgon, Drizzt accomplishes this and returns to his home where his view of reality is challenged.
However, Drizzt’s grip on reality is shaken as he succumbs to an Abyssal Illness due to the weakened barrier between the Abyssal Plane and the Material Plane. This is also a result of Demogorgon’s corrupting influence. This sickness causes Drizzt to think that everything he had been through for essentially the entire book series was a lie. He recalls how a demon captured one of his friends and tortured him for decades. Drizzt believes that his reality has become this: That the rebirth of his dead friends never happened, that it’s all a figment of a demon’s influence.
We may not fall prey to thinking that our reality is the concoction of a demon, but how many times do we overcomplicate various situations in our life?
I know that I have a tendency to get stuck in my head and overanalyze conflicts at times. There have been countless times when I have agonized over the wording of a text message trying to decipher some hidden meaning. There have been countless times when I have overanalyzed the way people act around me trying to find some hidden motive behind their actions. The mind is notorious for concocting narratives and seeking validation of those narratives.
We gravitate toward complexity because we can’t handle the simple truths around us. I think there’s a part of us that seeks complexity as a padding or a coping mechanism to the conflicts that surround us. We get caught up in the moment and it’s only much later when we look back, we realize just how ridiculous our actions were and now we’re stuck with the consequences of those actions.
But there’s a beauty in simplicity. Twists and turns in the narrative are great, but the stories that stick with us are the ones that carry an element of simplicity. Lord of the Rings, for example, is amazingly complex when one digs deep into the lore of Middle Earth, but as a plot it’s very straightforward: A Hobbit seeks to destroy the One Ring with a group of companions. Simple? Yes. Powerful? Most definitely.
Simplicity sticks with us. Simplicity speaks to us.
What I find amazing is when complex concepts I read in textbooks or more academic sources pop up in simplified forms in fiction. The complex concepts may be in the back of my mind, but it takes on a new meaning and becomes graspable when it’s found in its simplified form. I like diving into complex ideas as much as the next person; these are normally some of the most life giving conversations I have. However, at the very end, I notice that these conversations are boiled down to a very simple statement.
It’s in those moments that I recognize the seemingly complex nature of the rosebush…and that it was simply a rosebush.
 Stuart Sim and Borin van Loon, Introducing Critical Theory, (London: Icon Books, 2012), loc 103.
 Shane Parrish, The Great Mental Models, (Ottawa: Latticework Publishing Inc., 2019), loc 529