Processing under confusing and discerning complexity

Any severe form of adversity, at an individual but especially at a collective level, creates a powerful cluster of phenomena that often have an overwhelming effect on all concerned. This cluster includes the emotionally laden adverse situation and the pressing needs to address the dire consequences of the adversity. The overwhelming effect of being flooded by a host of impacts and considerations results in confusing complexity that creates epistemological panic. This then leads one to desperately resort to impulsive conceptualisation, which in effect constitutes a form of epistemological acting out. The overpowering nature of this state prevents every affected person from processing appropriately all the relevant phenomena and experiences, thus cyclically increasing the overwhelming effect of the adversity.

Appropriate processing, in this context, refers to the ability of discerning (a) the unique nature of the adverse events and circumstances that one is affected by, (b) the range of their impact on the person, and (c) the way these impacts can be addressed most effectively. It is important to emphasise that processing here refers not only to a cognitive function; instead, it also involves emotional and other reactions. Processing a situation involves the totality of one’s being, affecting even how one experiences oneself.

The epistemological cycle helps us appreciate that when we are overwhelmed and not able to process things clearly, the first sphere of our initial conceptualisation of an event becomes clouded, leading to inappropriate positioning which would then result in inapt action.

Although when being overwhelmed our very capacity to process adequately the adversity situation is impaired considerably, as human beings, we cannot live without any comprehension, and accordingly, we are driven to process phenomena (events and experiences) even under a state of confusing complexity. The main characteristics of such ‘defective’ processing would include the following three steps:

  • (a) Desperate to search for anything that helps us grasp the adversity, which by definition is contrary to our usual ways of being and functioning and beyond the ordinary comprehension of our usual ways of understanding things, we attempt to grasp what is, by and large, essentially ungraspable.
  • (b) This leads us to attempt to hold onto, at least, something that can be understood clearly, and this can only be one small part of the complex totality of the adverse phenomena. In this way, we are led to commit the classic logical error of pars pro toto, i.e. looking at one part and erroneously considering it to be the whole, mistaking it for the entirety of the situation. In effect, this amounts to an inappropriate compartmentalisation of our processing function.
  • (c) Then, unavoidably, this leads us to oversimplify our understanding of the complexify of the relevant phenomena, and the most common form of such an oversimplification is polarisation, i.e. perceiving reality in terms of black and white.

Cognitively, it is virtually impossible to hold on to both negative and positive effects of the same phenomenon, at the same time. Ordinary logic forces us to understand and evaluate phenomena in terms of being either good or bad, beneficial or damaging, etc. Yet, both the negative and positive effects can be real, each according to its own unique context. For example, Zdenka did suffer excruciatingly as well as being strengthened by her experience and avoiding the adoption of the victim identity. In order to hold onto this type of complex and seemingly contradictory duality, what is required is a reflective position (mentioned above), which would produce an epistemological vigilance, which would then result in developing a discerning complexity. Whereas impulsive conceptualisation and epistemological acting out are associated with epistemological panic and result in impaired processing, discerning complexity enables appropriate processing that differentiates the subtleties of the complexity, uniqueness, and totality of the relevant phenomena. Accordingly, discerning complexity would locate one in a position that would enable a differentiated processing that would both condemn unreservedly the heinous crimes of the Nazi perpetrators as well as celebrate Zdenka’s resilience, defiant spirit, and remarkable achievement!

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