Essay: ‘Run Towards Complexity’

Writer Hailey Gates explores the meaning of some advice a professor gave her.

On my first day of college, Dr. Chris Whidden told a lecture hall full of students we should all “run towards complexity.”

At the time, I thought I had an idea of what he meant. 

Back then, complexity seemed like a wall I was careening towards. It seemed inevitable. I was sure I would reach complexity someday but it existed only in the distance, somewhere out on the horizon-line of Lake Michigan. I never imagined I was already swimming in it. 

In reality, complexity has been central to much of my college experience thus far.

If moving to Illinois from Arizona has taught me anything, it’s that nothing is black or white — everything has complexity. The answer, the truth, the essence of something really only exists in the turbulent in-between, in the liminal weaving together of two fixed points. 

My understanding of college is rooted in this in-between, in the inherent dissonance of not-quite adulthood and not-quite adolescence. It’s kind of like being a double agent. You have a life here but also a life at home. You have an idea of what you want but a fragment of what you need. There’s a future you’re working towards in constant tension with a past only you can define. 

College life for me so far feels like swirling in a wormhole or a time-loop. I’m convinced I’m still living in the prologue of my life, but really I know these years are throwing me into the thick of it. I’m trying to run towards complexity, but I’m stuck on a treadmill. 

Making sense of this phase of life can only be done in conjunction with complexity — in understanding its fundamental nature. Whidden’s quote has stuck with me since my first day, not because complexity is something I’m necessarily chasing but because it’s something I’m constantly surrounded by. There is no choice but to run toward it, even if there is some agency in whether you hit it head-first or meet it halfway. 

So how do we characterize this complexity? How do we regain some agency amidst the ever turbulent in-between?

One way I’ve reconciled it all is through the relationships I’ve created. Within this constant convolution, this sea of unintelligible gray, the only anchors we have are the other people floating aimlessly within it. 

One day last summer, I was sitting with one of these friends at Metropolis Coffee Company, and we decided happiness was in the moment between two extremes. We equated life to a swinging pendulum and discerned happiness existed not on either side but where it swung through the middle. 

In this way, college is a time fundamentally rooted in discovering one’s pursuit of happiness despite the complexity it demands. Happiness exists inside of the complexity, in the moments of in-between we’re constantly running towards. 

There is an omnipresent demand during a student’s time at college to be thinking ahead. But if we are really to follow Whidden’s advice and “run towards complexity,” then I think it’s necessary to remind ourselves that defining these years as strictly transitional is counter-productive to a complex definition of happiness. 

We can run towards complexity or it can run into us. Either way, the turbulence will always come. Our delineation of life will forever change — the pendulum will always swing. 

There seem to be an infinite amount of roads, an unknowable amount of potential futures available to the college student. Instability is fundamental to living as gravity demands we swing back and forth. In this perpetual movement it’s hard to see which road one is heading down. It’s daunting to look ahead and not be able to characterize exactly what you see. 

Complexity — like the future — is inevitable and unknowable. In this way, it’s incredibly frustrating. 

But I’ll keep looking for complexity, keep trying to define the moments of transition as the happiest. I’ll keep leaning on the people here with me in-between as we all instinctively guide each other toward futures unknown. I’ll try to embrace the pendulum-swing of college as I piece complexity together. 

As I make the choice to actively run towards it, aware that it’s fundamental to whatever direction I go. 

Feature image by Daphne Kraushaar / The Phoenix

Hailey Gates

Hailey Gates