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  • Writer's pictureKevin Shorner-Johnson

Holding the Possibility of Complexity

Today, nestled in a retreat overlooking a resting meadow, bird and squirrel visits soften time and space for heartache. This has been a hard time to be a lover of peace. With a few clicks, I witness our full brutality and the violence of a relentless quest for more. I sit with the pain of Ukranian friends; the loss of place, home, community, and lives feels unfathomable.

And today, my beloved friend Carl was taken off life support only one week after an unexpected heart attack.

So. Much. Heartache.

Ringing in my head is the sound of Carl’s laugh, a laugh that was so fully lived that it easily became a cough. I think of warm summer nights on our porch, sharing meals, drinks, love, laughter, and the joy of time. In our last togetherness, we embraced the sacrament of Carl’s homemade latkes, sharing the beloved hospitality of Jewish traditions.


Carl opened windows to complexity. A New York City police captain who witnessed the horrors of 9/11, he carried the traumas of friends and realities shattered, and yet, he chose to live with generous laughter. He was proud of his Jewish heritage and attended a Brethren in Christ congregation. He was a guitar player and he was a beer aficionado, traversing relationships to find the next limited-edition gourmet brew.

I choose to remember the possibility of compassionate humanities that reside within our infinite complexity. My path back to peace, is to continuously hold the possibility of our return.

And he was a grandfather, And a dad, And a neighbor, And a beloved friend. He was many identities in a world of singular narratives.

In the wake of Carl’s death and Russian violence, I sit with complexity. I recall conversations where I spoke of police brutality, not recognizing the hurt in Carl’s eyes, as I flattened the complexity of his police identity into a one-dimensional story.

Simultaneously, I sit with my anger at military invasion, feeling the tug of one-dimensional stories that simplify the messiness of the pain, hurt, and violence that we inhabit. For me, Lederach’s (2005) language of “paradox” first opened understandings of the necessity of holding complexity. He writes, “The concept of paradox suggests that truth lies in but also beyond what is initially perceived . . . [paradox] holds together seemingly contradictory truths in order to locate a greater truth” (p. 36). The ability to hold complexity is the potential to hold space for peace.

Research on dehumanization theory shows us that when humans become violent toward one another, we preface harm with a flattening of the Other, crafting a story that has fewer moral requirements. Nineteenth century transatlantic enslavers justified horrific acts with a relabeling of humans as animals or objects (Haslam, 2014).

We know from Infrahumanization theory that humans attribute less complex emotions and feelings to outgroups and greater humanness to ingroup members (Heflick & Goldenberg, 2014). In preparing for violence, protective imaginations turn humans into objects, combatants, terrorists, or animals. This move to objectification strips away the “human nature” of a person, reducing the complexity of humanness into an object to be manipulated or consumed. (Heflick & Goldenberg, 2014, p. 117) .

It is no wonder that as nations go to war, our language shifts from fathers, mothers, grandmothers into the language of soldiers, combatants, and terrorists. That shift protects the wrongdoer from the moral cost of violence, causing unthinkable traumas and shattering compassionate realities.

Holding Complexity for Peace

In the wake of the attack upon Ukraine, I have been wrestling with what it means that my last podcast episode explored a musical culture (Tuvan) that is within the geographic boundaries of Russia. In this complex time, I embrace a podcast that holds the complexity of a profound cultural group that lives within Russia, resisting the pull of in-group/out-group flattening. As I sense that I want to adopt a simplistic anger against “Russians,” I choose to remember the possibility of compassionate humanities that reside within our infinite complexity. My path back to peace, is to continuously hold the possibility of our return. My time with Carl taught me this.

Theodore Levin and Valentina Süzükei’s (2006) text on Tuvan soundscapes first inspired me to think differently about how sound might be a path to relationship with the ecological world. This historically nomadic population has cultivated deeper ways to listen to place and sing back to it. Their listening-singing is a profound act of care that rests in stark contrast with the ecological and human traumas of war.

During this time of aggression and “good and evil,” this Tuvan cultural group teaches me of the complexity, beauty, and humanity of traditions found within Russia. This podcast explores the violence of the Soviet project that sought to suppress Central Asian diversity in the pursuit of the imagined, assimilated, utopian nation-state, something that Levin refers to in this episode as “Homo Sovieticus.” As modern events attest, this assimilation project is still alive in the geo-political aggressions of today.

Levin also speaks of the “forced forgetting” and the “forced remembering” that accompanies a project of suppression. That work of forced forgetting/remembering is a violent restorying that is at the root of the violence leveled against Ukranian citizens. Mothers, fathers, grandparents, children, brothers, and sisters are violently uprooted and torn apart in the pursuit of an imagined nation-state that is a mirage of greed.

If we are to learn from this moment, we might do well to look at the forced forgetting/remembering and restorying that accompanies violence within our own culture. How do our stories suppress the beauty of our complexity and diversity? How do we restory the darker parts of our past, enslavement and racism, in an attempt to avoid the reparative work of the present?

I hold all of this because I hold the memory of Carl and in the Jewish tradition, I allow his memory to be a blessing to me. My time sitting near him in the embrace of our porch welcomed and shared the complexity of who we both are and were. As I feel the pull of tunnels of modern dichotomous discourse, I invite myself to remember to reemerge, hold paradox, and spend time with complex Others. In being near one another, we learn to see the gentle ripples between firm positions, the laugh lines behind our eyes, and the affirmation of the messy, complex beauty of our fully being with one another.

Blessing to you, Carl.


May war end,

May we awake to the brutality of our thinking,

May the brutality of simple dichotomies,

Blossom into multi-petaled complexity.

May we hold the pain of loss,

Of harm,

Calling our compassionate humanness back into being.


Haslam, N. (2014). What is dehumanization? In Paul G. Bain, Jeroen Vaes, & Jacques-Philippe Leyens (Eds.), Humanness and dehumanization (pp. 34-48). New York, NY : Routledge.

Heflick, N. A., & Goldenberg, J. L. (2014). Dehumanization: A threat and solution to terror management. In Paul G. Bain, Jeroen Vaes, & Jacques-Philippe Leyens (Eds.), Humanness and dehumanization (pp. 111-126). New York, NY : Routledge.

Lederach, J. P. (2005). The moral imagination: The art and soul of building peace. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Levin, T., & Süzükei, V. (2006). Where rivers and mountains sing: Sound, music, and nomadism in Tuva and beyond. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press.

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