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THINKING ABOUT PROBLEMS


Hello friends, please forgive me for not writing in a while. Late winter is really hard for me to get through, so I have scheduled a lot of projects and pastimes and I lose track of time when I’m immersed in them. To compensate, this blog is a little longer than usual.


The number of this blog is the answer to the Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe, and Everything (The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy). How apt. What was the question again?


The topic for today is problems. We human beings are problem solvers. It’s said that if we enter a room and see a jigsaw puzzle finished on a table, our first instinct is to break the puzzle up so we can solve it again. Trying to solve any problem, or even just convincing ourselves that we are trying, satisfies this urge in us. If we don’t have problems, we will invent them. That’s how strong this urge is.


This is fine if the problems we are trying to solve are bona fide ones, problems that both have and need a solution. Every aspect of human ingenuity for hundreds of years is the result of problems successfully solved, mostly related to our place in the physical world. When I lived in northern Germany I went to a couple of shipping museums. It fascinated me that people had solved many problems one after the other to create ships that went around the world. Every part of these ships – sails, ropes, spars, pulleys, wheels, keels, down to the smallest dish that the captain ate his dinner from – were made by hand in the heyday of tall ships, the 17th and 18th centuries. Just to take one example, the sails (as many as 16 or 20 on one ship) were tied down and made to move in various ways by means of a positive forest of ropes, each with its own contribution to the movement of the ship across the sea. It was amazing to see old plans of these ships, drawn by hand and faithfully followed by shipwrights to produce a vessel that could, when properly navigated using the related wizardry of navigation by stars, moon and sun, travel all the way to the Antipodes.


But the problem with problems (if I may) is that often they are not really problems at all. They are just manufactured to keep our monkey-minds occupied, and they distract us with their seeming immediacy and importance. Example: you are passing the time by looking for some article of clothing online. It’s a complex process, isn’t it? Many things must be taken into account – size, color, material, price, postage. The dopamine highs built into the very acts of searching and finding blind us to other, larger problems – such as, that we may not actually need another sweater or whatever it is, or that by buying it we may be contributing to larger problems, like sweatshops in the Third World or the increasing global quandary of what to do with all those unwanted used clothes. Shopping has been presented to us as a pleasurable activity, something to do when we are bored, and the activity of solving the superficial problems that arise when we shop takes up the whole foreground of our mind and provides us with the illusion of a job well done. A job, I humbly submit, that probably didn’t have to be done in the first place.


I am not objecting to having fun shopping. I simply want to point out that these small problems may keep us from remembering that there are other more important things to consider in this world. This isn’t only about shopping. In our daily lives, we are constantly trying to solve small problems in order to make things run more smoothly – that’s what all those “Kitchen Hacks” and so on are about. Some of them aren’t very useful, and some are downright wasteful of time, money, or materials. But because they purport to solve problems, we are irresistibly drawn to them, even when the “problem” doesn’t in fact exist. In the old days, a single tool could serve various purposes, and did the job perfectly adequately. A kitchen knife, for example, could do what peelers, corers, cutters, choppers, etc. all do, with a minimum of saved time which we unfortunately mostly use up in the next phone-scrolling session or binge-watch on Netflix.


It becomes even more pernicious when we have emotional addictions (I’m not talking here about clinical illnesses). Being unable to detach ourselves from political news is a case in point. There is a lot to be said for being informed, but how much does this news (especially if it comes from a source skewed to left or right, as they mostly are) actually inform us and how much does it just make us scared and angry? This has come to seem to me to be one of the actual purposes of mass-produced news: to provide a problem that we can immerse ourselves in, to the detriment of problems that really need solving. If somebody remarks that we are perhaps addicted to it, we can say that we are just keeping ourselves informed about what’s “really going on”. If you prefer not to obsess over what Donald Trump is doing, these people will call you “part of the problem” because you refuse to “see the truth”. And problems like this are never solved, they are self-perpetuating; there is always some new crisis to obsess over. Addiction to these kinds of problems can even become a source of covert superiority – these people may actually think they are better than others simply because they feel they “know” so much more or are more “in tune with reality”. But reality takes many forms.


Deeper problems such as lack of self-worth, beating ourselves up for imagined wrongdoing, etc. for many are the last bastion of manufactured problems (yes, they were manufactured, as a defense mechanism, perhaps in childhood), clung to till the last, because it is difficult to work on them, and most of us would prefer to do something else. We keep these problems, like a squirrel with nuts, for the time when we may run out in everyday life. We still have these unsolved personality or emotional problems to turn over, not to solve outright, but to treasure. Yes, we aren’t so shallow as to admit we have no problems! Only a fool or an idiot would have no problems, right? Better a manufactured problem than none at all! To this extent have we been brainwashed. After all, from the point of view of people who are trying to sell us something, having a problem means you might be persuaded to try solving it by buying something. This is the way the world goes round. Is there any other way to be?


What if you do refuse to pay tribute to manufactured problems? After all, most of us have pretty good lives when you boil it right down. We have enough food, clothing, shelter, loved ones, all the things we need to survive. Many can go further than mere survival – we have activities and topics we are absorbed in, maybe we are even involved in spiritual pursuits or global concerns.


Maybe we ought to write down things that we think of as problems in our lives, think about how they can be solved, or whether they are actually problems at all. How much time and energy are we wasting on these? How much better would our lives, and the lives of those around us, be if we could let them go?

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