It’s a little simplistic, but then Occam’s Razor steers us away from the complicated and toward the simple, despite the fact that many of our challenges are not simple at all. Some can be quite complicated: family dynamics, relationships, to name just a couple. Yet when I consider this, I also remember the reverse, a fact demonstrated early on by the Artificial Life hobbyists when computers and their potential for mirroring the “real world” were first being explored, and it is simply this: Simple Behaviors Give Rise to Complicated Systems.
I explored this myself a bit, back in the day. There was one program I cannot remember the name of, but it was about as simple as it gets: the computer screen was divided into a grid, and each location on the grid was randomly seeded with a color. The rules were just as simple: If all locations surrounding a grid point were Green (for example), flip your color to Blue. If all four points located diagonally from you were Red, flip your color to Yellow, etc. Then you’d run the program and it would pass through all locations multiple times, applying the rules each time. After about 100 iterations, a random collection of colors would turn into beautiful concentric patters of color, looking for all the world like a Persian rug.
Such patterns make for great looking computer screen savers. They’re not so good for real life when we get stuck in patterns in almost the exact same way. If you doubt that, think about it for a minute. When Aunt Sally comes to Thanksgiving Dinner, does she always start the conversation by criticizing your sister’s refusal to have children? Does your sister get defensive and start on the subject of just how many times Aunt Sally has been married? Does your Uncle Frank feel compelled to defend his sister, which gets your mother started on Frank? Pretty soon you’re where you are every Thanksgiving—heavily into the wine while the drama swirls around you. But what if, say, this year you met Aunt Sally upon arrival, took her aside, and had a little heart to heart with her? But that wouldn’t work, you say. She’s just like that and she knows exactly what she’s doing…does she? You don’t know that, because you’ve never had that heart to heart. Maybe there’s another reason. Maybe it’s because she honestly thinks your sister would create a beautiful child, and she simply does not understand your sister’s decision. Maybe she just doesn’t realize the effect she’s having. You don’t know. You’ve never tried to find out. One way you know what to expect. Another way, you don’t, and fear of the unknown is one of the biggest. Remember the simple rules from above? Here’s one—see something that frightens you, turn away. And again. And again. The path of least resistance. Pretty soon your life is stuck in a pattern just like a rug, and that’s not a good thing for either creativity or life itself.
I’ve mentioned I’ve been attempting to learn to play guitar, and I’m still at it. I still suck. After a week of lost practice because of travel and taxes, I was finally able to get back to practicing last night. And realized again just how badly I sucked. Nothing sounded right. My rhythm was almost nonexistent, even with a metronome, my strumming irregular, chord changes still slow and a bit clumsy. Attempts at Fingerstyle completely laughable. Not for the first time I wondered if I was wasting my time, even though the point never was to become the next Howe or Clapton or King. I just want to play. So long as I don’t care how I sound, I can do that, but of course I DO care. So I was feeling totally frustrated and thinking about quitting. Hating the word, but there it was.
Then I thought of something that scared me even more than the thought of quitting. An online guitar site that I frequent had suggested an exercise that I was avoiding. Like no way, don’t even think about it. You’ve got to get a lot better before you try this…which was a simple lesson in ear training. Take a song, a simple one to begin with that you know the notes to—and by knowing the notes, I mean what each sounds like, not the actual note name—pick a starting point, say the key of D, so the root note is D, and that’s your first note. Now. Without knowing what they are, find the rest of the notes on the guitar neck so that you can play that song in that key. Without an instruction video on uTube, without tablature, just by ear. Listening to the note you’re playing and knowing when you got it right.
No frickin’ way.
Then I thought, screw it. I was already close to “shutting that whole thing down,” so to speak. I figured this would finish me off and I could go do something else. For the coup de grace I decided on “Happy Birthday.” You don’t get much simpler than that. Started with the first note, which of course repeats, so that’s two notes. Found the third. Took all of a few seconds. The fourth took a little longer. So did the fifth. To cut to the chase, in about an hour I had it. The entire song. I’d played it before by instructions and with chords, but this time I was playing it note for note in a key I’d never tried it in before. And by god it sounded like “Happy Birthday” was supposed to sound, better than I had ever played it before. I did it. And fear was the only thing that kept me from doing it a lot sooner. And had kept turning me toward a familiar pattern—try something, discover it’s not so easy, quit. Weaving the rug yet again.
I almost did the same thing with my writing. I had decided to quit, way back in the 1990s. For an entire year, I thought I had quit. Too afraid I wasn’t getting anywhere, too afraid of failure. Then finally remembered that this wasn’t the point. Never had been the point, so what the hell was I afraid of?
If we accept fear as a barrier, then we start making patterns, and sooner or later, we’re a rug. All we have to do to break the pattern is realize that fear isn’t a barrier at all—it’s a goal, a signpost, a big old X marks the spot. Everything we want really is on the other side.