“Martha, Martha, you are anxious and worried about many things. There is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part and it will not be taken from her.”Luke 10:41-42
Life is incredibly complex but it is we who mostly complicate it. When we are faced with difficulties, we often complicate the situation with our worry and anxiety. The “what ifs” of our circumstances tend to overwhelm and freeze us. Frequently, we feel that we have limited options and our loss of control sends us into a spin. Feeling cornered, our response tends to exacerbate the situation and bad often moves to worse.
On the other end, faced with too many options, we get lost in the noise, and become consumed with the “right” choice. Here, we face a different set of “what ifs” and get stuck in the fear of a wrong decision. A friend of mine describes this as getting lost in the “overwhelm.” Faced with the complexity of too many choices, we further complicate it by delaying, retreating, or punting.
Besides ensnaring us in their web of anxiety and worry, the many things of daily existence also tend to distract us from the better things. Important priorities get lost in the persistent obfuscation of the loud and the urgent. A powerful example is the array of headlines that capture our attention and direct our collective conscience. Our political system and national agenda are very much driven by the loud and the urgent, bobbing and weaving to the chaos of the moment, while ignoring or burying complex and important issues…leaving them to smolder for a generation or two before erupting “unexpectedly” onto our society down the road.
The Loud and the Urgent
The distractive nature of the loud and the urgent hits us at the micro level as well. In our companies, we sacrifice long-term objectives for the short-term fix of profits or immediate gratification of our headlines. Why do we do this? For one thing, solving complex problems can often seem very unprofitable in the short run, as they require investment into uncertain solutions. Another problem in business mirrors our political system in the fact that power is fleeting if stakeholders aren’t happy with progress. Quick successes are tough to achieve when addressing complex, long term challenges.
Finally, governments and organizations are run by people and all of us tend to retreat or freeze in the face of too much complexity. We need sound-bite solutions that are simple to articulate, quickly digestible, and intellectually plausible – at least in some basic way. The “overwhelm” hits us at all levels.
In The Abolition of Man, C.S. Lewis writes “We make men without chests and expect from them virtue and enterprise. We laugh at honor and are shocked to find traitors in our midst.” Lewis’ observation gets to the center, or should I say, the missing center, of the issue for much of our modern world. In many ways, we have lost our center. Our sense of purpose. Our sense of meaning. Our sense of priority. We have no unum necessarium – the one thing necessary.
Look at many decisions we make and you will begin to see the pattern. There is no center, no purpose. Collectively, our nation struggles to find any unifying purpose. We are a country of factions wandering among the noise of individual preference. That noise is driven by the special interests of each group and its ability to influence the “narrative.” We argue endlessly over the “rightness” of decisions because there is no center, no unum necessarium.
Our institutions and companies struggle in the same way. Especially those that are massive in scale or have existed for a very long time. A center likely existed at some point in time but got washed out with the changing landscape of trends, leadership, and external forces. In The Innovator’s Dilemma, Clayton Christensen captures this notion by describing the arc of innovation that propels an organization’s success initially only to restrain it later as it finds itself unable to shift away from the innovation that made it successful to begin with.
The simple answer is that it became too dependent on profits from the original innovation. The more complex answer is that the early organization lost its center, or “why” it innovated to begin with. The one necessary thing of the beginning was no longer the driving force.
Made up of Individuals
For us as individuals, complexity obfuscates our unum necessarium. In relationships, we get lost among our wants, desires, and preferences. The central priority of what brings us together takes a backseat to our to the demands of self which frequently tip into selfishness. The one necessary thing to maintain a family loses out to the urgent desire of the moment. The one necessary thing to maintain our integrity loses out to the urgent call of the wild, and we become embroiled in the complications of our own choice.
Broadening a bit, our unum necessarium gets to the heart of how we see, and engage with, the world around us. Are we “men without chests” who base our decisions on the immediate, convenient, or most gratifying? Do we sacrifice our center to the expedient? Or, have we forgotten what that center was to begin with?
What is your one thing? Our wildly complex world actually becomes quite simple when we look at it through the lens of a center based on our one necessary thing. Our priorities get clear very quickly when we keep our unum necessarium front and center. Our unum necessarium brings simplicity and clarity. However, don’t confuse that with easy. The one thing necessary will demand much from us as it holds steady in the shifting complexity and relativity of the world around us. Being centered thus, will draw its own price, though it won’t be one of confusion and uncertainty.
Are you anxious and worried about many things? Consider for a moment your one thing, your unum necessarium. Look outward from that center and see if the many complexities begin to settle into a different kind of order.