Robert (gurdonark) wrote,

Defining the Problem

Some years ago, I thought it clever to try to write a book of comic aphorisms. I purchased a little Mead Notebook, 9 1/2 x 6 in size, for the princely sum of 1 dollar and 15 cents. Then, in pencil, I began to write little one and two line "pithy sayings". Of all my various attempts to write witty material, I believe this is my nadir, and yet I'm fond of many of the phrases. I suppose I thought that because I speak and write so much in aphorism and trite saying, I would profit by just devoting myself to the form. Suffice it to say that this way of defining the problem did not work. But it did get me thinking about defining the problem, and what a difference that can make in how one faces anything. I thought I'd expand on this, using some of my aphorisms as non-sequitur headings.

Consider the shovel--it neither molds nor reaps

One of my favorite sayings is "it's all in how one defines the problem". I do not accept the general proposition that each person entirely creates his or her own life. Millions upon millions of people are born each day into lives they cannot create or transcend. But so often, I think that people who have enough to eat and a place to sleep, have access to education and employment, and who don't suffer from any of the problem-enhancing maladies, nonetheless can define the problem so that life cannot be solved.

I thought kindly of a departed friend last night, who passed away after years of substance abuse issues. But I'm not sure alcohol (or what have you) is what killed him. Indeed, some day I expect we'll be able to treat addiction with medicines that make it irrelevant, and that we are just one penicillin away, so to speak. Yet my friend's definition of his problem still would have made his life very hard to live. He works in my profession. If there is one reality in my profession, it's that while most people earn a presentable living, the individual results vary from startling success to "nice car and a nice tract home" type of results. In some cases, people who were "high flyers" become "working the way back up". I can think of tax lawyers, for example, who drafted the tax shelters that the Reagan years tax reform essentially eliminated with the stroke of a pen scribbled across a bill signed into legislation. Those lawyers went from huge books of business, to having to switch specialties. In some cases, the fallout was far from pretty, as people on top of the world literally lost their main clientele, and had to start entirely over.

My friend did not have any similar "they passed a law which eliminated the type of business deal I make a fortune doing" type of failure. He just had the normal "I'm a trial lawyer, but I don't have my own book of business" type of shortcoming, which meant that any downturn or disfavor in his relations with those for whom he worked meant he would have to start over a bit. Trial lawyers who can try cases in my neck of the woods can always eat. It's just how well that's in issue. But my friend somehow couldn't accept the idea that his life could be defined otherwise than by having x amount of income, living with y personal indulgences, and being able to indulge in z recreations. Don't get me wrong--this was not some shallow, callous guy, but a caring friend, a man devoted to his parents, a thoughtful, articulate, extremely witty, decent man, and a musician. But he couldn't "see" a world in which he rebuilt his life.
For want of this vision, somehow the world didn't work for him any more.

The best way to beat eggs is after you remove the shell
Coalesce quickly. Be ready to change
There is a need for poets and gardeners

I think sometimes how much of what I call "middle class misery" is a matter of how the problem is defined. It's so hard to accept that one's own limited life, reasonably comfortable though it might be, is "all there is". A friend should be more caring, a family member should be more loving, and there should bemore meaning than this. In some cases, this leads to perpetual frustration.
In other cases, it leads to an opposite reaction, in which the person experiencing the feeling despairs so much of life working that, guess what?, life doesn't work.

I bought a kaleidoscope. I love looking at the prismatic light. But if one just places one's fist over the end, the light is gone. If one, while looking through it, says "this is just a 5 dollar tin cheap kaleidoscope from the Wound and Wound Toy Company, which was on the shelf right by the plastic hands", then one can manage to find disgust with oneself even while one's eye is bathed in what I can only, perhaps tritely, refer to as glorious light.

Trident is the name of a mythical confection
Keep on asking questions

Lately I find myself reading works by the New Thought writers. They posit that one can attain any good thing, merely by believing that the universal Mind offers nothing but good. Last year or two years ago, I can't recall, a commercial movement arising from the Biblical Prayer of Jabez arose, in which books, paraphernalia, and glass windchimes featuring doves all celebrated this fellow Jabez, who prayed for real estate, prosperity, and similar marks of material success, and his prayers were answered.

Although I'm cognizant of Christ's words to the effect that with merely the faith of a mustard seed, one can really make things rock n roll, I do not really believe that merely linking up with some cosmic Mind will necessarily eliminate the evils in this world. But I do take from this type of thinking a real incentive to try to create problems I can solve, and then solve them.

Surrender the things of adulthood gladly
These three things should be held dear--the need for others, the needs of others, the other things

Lately I focus on how can I keep the cynicisms acquired on childhood playgrounds and the limitations acquired through sheer weariness from clouding out what I can do in this life.

I'm not knocking those cynicisms nor that weariness particularly. If one is going to be stuck in a life that sometimes feels just like the Civil War in the Stephen Crane novel, one needs one's bandanna tinctured with blood at the end of the day. But I do notice that if I define the problems in my life so that I cannot solve them, then they tend not to get solved. I'm not saying that all problems are solvable.
I will be unable to eat as much gingerbread as I wish until they make it zero calories. But I want to be more in that mode of "I can do this" than in that mode of "why bother".

A stare is a horrible thing to waste
Hospital corridors need aardvarks to keep them lively

I know that it's polite to suggest that with a little faith, all things are possible. But let me confess a worldly faith I have. I have faith that many things we now see as personal problems we will one day see as medical issues, and actually cure. Once the DNA is mapped, if we can keep the damned power grids running, then we're going to see an explosion of understanding we never imagined. It turns out, I posit, that much of what we now see as spiritual crisis will turn out to be merely individual biological flaw. Then, with what is left, we can face true spiritual crisis, define it, and figure out how to deal with it. But maybe it's not about science after all. We'll see.

While I wait for that halcyon day, though, I must face up to more mundane decisions--when will I eat my raisin bran, what will be on my "to do" list? I rather think to myself lately that while the various choices in my life are not all easy, I'd like to live them with integrity, hard work, care, consistency to my values, and love. Maybe instead of hunting for some magic formulae for solving everything--recite this mantra, abjure from this hedonism--I should just try a little thought, a lot of effort and perhaps some prayer (done in some metaphoric closet).

Odious people exist. Care for them as best you can
Cracked logic leads to broken ceramics

I don't know some one way to put this that works in all situations. I don't have some guidebook which will, like a mapquest map, lead me directly to destination (albeit with curious turns I never would have put in there were I Mapquest). But I think lately--how much am I defining the problem so it can't be solved, and how much of this is really a problem?

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