Friday, June 11, 2010

Simplify, Simplify

I will ponder color and design over the weekend, but here I must recommend a recent David Brooks column stoutly defending the liberal arts in education. Eschewing grand but airy pronouncements (of the kind frequently found on this blog), Brooks argued that the study of history, literature, and other domains creakily termed "the humanities" gives unique insight into "The Big Shaggy," his term for the deeply complex and wayward aspects of human nature that escape systematizing theories, whether biological, political, or otherwise ideological ("The Big Shaggy" isn't the term I would have chosen, but Brooks is writing for the New York Times, while I'm writing here).

His column nicely encapsulated what I've stood for in life and fought for in my years of clinical work, that is, resistance to the dumbing-down of human experience that is often found in diagnostic systems and, well, simple-minded approaches to minds that, rightly considered, are infinitely complicated. And yet I found myself contrasting that truth with a recent Jon Stewart routine in which he showed multiple clips of Barack Obama, with respect to situations like the gulf oil spill, health care, and the economy, pronouncing again and again to reporters, "It's complicated." Stewart followed this up with appalled exasperation: "Well simplify it!"

This usefully reminds me that human beings, while capable of appreciating complexity (to varying degrees) are alike in needing, especially in times of crisis, forceful and dramatic metaphors that are, yes, simple. So when I am tempted to disdain such words as "depression" or, even worse, "chemical imbalance," that seem to obscure a wealth of nuance with a kind of advertising slogan, I need to remember that such terms help to orient people. While a minority of folks--those who seek out psychoanalysts and English doctorates--may revel in boundless complication, most people are not wired that way. That is not to say that they're stupid or simple-minded; they merely crave contrast and direction. Leadership, whether political or clinical, is about providing these things; by breaking things down into basics, it risks dumbing-down, but the alternative risk is endless equivocation.

It seems to me that the art of medicine, like the art of life, is steering a path between over-simplification and over-complication, making use of metaphors without becoming trapped by them. Indeed, isn't language itself a kind of over-simplification inasmuch as it reduces, to paraphrase William James, the blooming, buzzing confusion of experience to a finite number of limited words? We can only grasp reality by making a narrative out of it, a narrative that necessarily distorts the stuff of experience. Just as we charge Barack Obama with constructing a narrative of the gulf oil spill that usefully but modestly apportions responsibility and possible avenues of action, we would charge a psychiatrist with drawing up a diagnostic and therapeutic narrative that is respectful of its own limitations. Whenever one tells oneself, "It's complicated," one should inwardly reply, "Simplify, simplify," and vice versa.

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