Optimistic Despair: Why there Are No Real Problems in the World, and What to Do About It

“Teach us to care and not to care/Teach us to sit still”

“Ash Wednesday”, Eliot

There is no problem with the world. Only thought makes problems. Every single human problem is only the result of how we imagined things in a crazy way.

Life does have challenges, but every stubbornly knotted predicament, such as mass hunger, war, greed, selfishness itself (internecine competition), are responses to a problematic way of imagining things.

Dropping bombs is not a quality of the earth itself or of life itself, but only a quality of human imagination. War doesn’t exist until we imagine borders, identities, competitive economic systems, hierarchy and status. Mass starvation doesn’t exist until we imagine competition, ownership, and hierarchies that undermine sensible ways of distributing food, as well as monocultural, soil-depleting, destructive ways of growing food.

Even selfishness itself is only a radicalized response to the world, not a quality of the world or of humans by nature. As soon as we begin to imagine the world, and create stories to make sense of it, we have left behind a static vision of human nature and have entered the realm of an infinite plasticity. We can’t hide behind the excuse of nature. Nature is not causing our problems. The imagination is doing that.

Our needs are not problems either. I’ve heard people say that testosterone is a terrible chemical. But testosterone is not a problem. It’s the way this natural energy, this necessary desire, gets perverted into bizarre shapes by our vision of the world, our ways of thinking.

The need for shelter, love, food and sex doesn’t necessitate the problems of identity (pride, greed, lust, envy, gluttony, wrath, and sloth). The infamous seven deadly sins derive directly from a staked identity (from taking our self concepts too seriously). These seven varieties of selfishness are only secondary qualities of the way we’ve fetishized those simple necessities through an overpowerful or too literal sense of identity. A fetish arises only because something has gone haywire in the way we imagine ourselves and our relation to the world.

But the earth itself, life itself, has no problems, only challenges. These challenges are presented to us open-endedly. How we respond to the conditions of life is up to us.

This is why it’s a waste of time and energy to try solving human political, social and technical problems one at a time. Problems are only getting more complicated because we’re empowering illusions by trying to solve them. It’s the imagination that has to be resolved (clarified). We have to unearth our own compulsion of making a fetish out of simple necessities, step out of the momentum driving us to imagine ourselves in such isolated and alienating forms, as if we were each individually the center of the universe.

By spending so much energy working to solve specific problems we spread the virus of fetishistic thinking, which merely grows the canopy of problems and never digs towards that root, which is in our confused relationship to the imagination.

Turning attention to thought is far more practical and leads to far quicker changes than attending to every problematic symptom of thought. The practical approach to life is sleepwalking into a maze of ever-growing problems.

Looking more honestly at our confused relationship to the imagination is the only chance.

But chance for what? For personal salvation? Hardly.

In fact, I apologize if any of these essays occasionally leave the stink of optimism or hope. Sometimes I speak about “defeating” the predatorial mentality. We all know that won’t happen. But it’s also stupid to be too placid or convinced of our doom.

I’m trying to say something vaguely felt that slides between these poles somehow, that shows our future as an open question, always unsettled, depending entirely on how honestly we imagine the world.

The predator is like an old bully. And what usually happens when we face down an old bully is we don’t beat them up. That’s rare. The bully usually becomes irrelevant to us, and his or her judgements and put-downs end up seeming too silly to incite the chain reaction of self-doubt that made them loom so large. And they fade into the background and are forgotten.

Is that a real defeat or victory? Not really, because we stopped participating in the old way of thinking. We just walked away from the old momentum of self-doubt. But I use the word “defeat’ in a kind of mythic or metaphoric notation of a new freedom that’s possible.

What I’m really fumbling to say is we’re doomed in our present condition. This condition is heading towards ruin, obviously, but it’s not a cause for despair. As the wonderful Paul Watzlawick once said, “the situation is hopeless, but not serious.” Even if personal hope for resolution is lost I still feel hopeful in a way. It’s not personal hope I’m feeling. I have no chance of understanding myself sufficiently to change very much. Let’s just put that on the page and be done. I’m a mess.

It’s not even hope, it’s the perception of a potential that sneaks into these essays. I mean, there’s almost an inevitability about the resolution of this self-destructive state of mind; a potential that is beginning to make itself known, so that even if we never see that potential flower in our time and space, we’re part of that development.

It’s the universe’s own expansion we can feel in ourselves as a kind of giddy optimism now and then.

For the moment let’s picture life as an eternal body of some sort, and see each of us as individual cells that live and die within this body. Our own personal cell-sized lives are short and squat if taken too literally as separate pieces. But it’s the body that really holds the meaning, not the cells. The eternally growing body of the universe is only made of these cells. We are the whole thing. We partake of that, and embody it. So it is our destiny that the universe will resolve the problems we’ve made on earth.

This isn’t quite like the fly on the wagon wheel who says “Oho, but don’t we raise a lot of dust,” because the “we” that participates is not the destiny of this particular cell. I know I’m never going to change radically. I know this because a self can Never change. Selves can only disappear, or die. It’s not my destiny I’m feeling optimistic about. It’s that deeper organism each of us embodies. It’s not even optimism for humanity. The only way we ever change is when a generation dies who thought in old ways. Well, this is going to kill several generations before it runs its course (optimistically speaking) and then maybe only a few radically altered humans will be left standing or squatting after this collision with the limits of thinking.

It’s the discovery that there is a possibility of getting through this trap, even if human beings never end up realizing it, which ignites optimism despite everything.

Maybe it’s the combination of a possibility and an unlikelihood that lifts the mood. It forces me to ask myself over and over again, but why can’t you or I change? If it’s only a realization of futility, why can’t this happen? There’s nothing blocking us other than thought, other than an illusion. It’s like we’re standing at the threshold of a new world and are comatose with fear, with panic. We can’t seem to be awakened from our own circular thinking. But that’s all it is.

There are no real problems in the world. Every single one is just the imagination running amok.

Life is showing a new potential beyond the crash. It’s a moment of branching that is far more significant than our own individual lives, our own species, even our own planet. The species may yet survive after the crash. The planet will certainly survive. But will it thrive if it doesn’t learn this lesson of our collapse? It’s not about us, but we have demonstrated a limit to a kind of development that it will now need to surpass if it’s going to learn to thrive beyond the level of mere fight and flight. The intelligence we started to introduce into the earth will not be abandoned, but will be approached in a new way, through a new species if necessary, or through us again if we survive in some form. But creativity doesn’t give up, it learns from its mistakes.

So even if there is no hope for us personally, it’s still beautiful to realize the limits and the potential implied in our own self-generated demise.

The answer is found in the problem as Krishnamurti said. This is a profound realization that surpasses Einstein’s observation (apocryphal maybe, but nonetheless profound also) that he would spend 55 minutes on the problem and only 5 on the solution. But that applied only to material problems, which require at least some mechanical manipulation.

The problem of thought (which is the only problem we actually face), does not require a solution whatsoever. A realization of error is already an altered state of mind. Nothing more needs to be done. The collapse manifests the wrong headed approach; it signifies what we need to stop doing. It requires only a change in perception. The resolution can’t be left out just because we’re not likely to realize the resolution personally. It still causes optimism.

There is a way to resolve this Literalism. And as long as we’re alive we participate in that impersonal, wider, universal resolution that is coming with our own collapse.

It reminds me of my friend Pat Styer. She was buying books when she knew she had only weeks to live. She was participating in the learning of the universe up until the moment she died. Why not? We were fated to die as soon as we were born anyways. It’s all pointless from a legacy point of view. There is no legacy. Even the most celebrated personalities will be forgotten in a few generations. The personal never had much draw from that angle. It was always the participation in something that extended beyond our separate lives that meant anything.

I think people sometimes shy away from exploring the potential that our impending crash illuminates because it incites personal hope. But this is more like a Beckett story than a hopeful sermon. The tragedy is magnified by realizing the potential that is also dawning. We’re all likely to miss the dawning potential when the predator becomes as irrelevant as a schoolyard bully. We can see that happening as a potential now, even if nobody on earth ever learns to face it steadily. And yet it could be faced. That’s not hope, that’s a magnification and focus on our tragedy. We’re not going to change even though we could have changed. Both sides of that equation are needed to realize the magnitude of our collapse.

We’re learning as we’re dying. And I think this is how human beings can serve the earth; by being keen observers of the trap into which they walked. We’re in Pat Styer’s situation now. The only thing that remains of any importance is the wider view now, not the radically personal one that has driven human society since Roman times at least. In the wider view there is still optimism and growth. That’s what makes it all so much more significant and profound.

From this angle we’re part of the universe’s momentum of growth. This is a different use of the word “momentum.” Because in the last essay I realized that it was the cessation of momentum that is the commencement of real learning. We step out of the habits of cultural momentum to see things from a new angle. But this is how a prismatic perspective works. And here I’m teaching a little, so forgive my arrogance. But see the beauty of this approach. We don’t hold to any answers. The words we use are all only metaphors. We can contradict ourselves, say “learning is the cessation of momentum” in one context and also say “we partake in the momentum of learning” in another. They’re not conclusions. Each use reveals a different quality that wouldn’t be visible otherwise.

And so in one context momentum represents the habits of thought into which we fall by luck of where we’re born. The habit of Christianity or Buddhism or Communism or Capitalism. If we take any of them as gospel (literally) we are confined to that momentum and unable to see anything beyond that scope. But after we’ve broken through the momentum of cultural blinders then there is a different kind of momentum, not one based on habit and the plod of thinking, but the momentum of learning, participating in the expanding universe, the infinity of new capacities that arise as our imagination is freed from literalism and dogmatism.

Momentum here is only a metaphor of growth. Momentum on the previous level was a metaphor of habit. If we can use words as metaphors and not as answers to lock down understanding, then arguments become irrelevant. Then we work together to see things from multiple angles rather than competing to see through only one.

We can part different curtains with the same word. Otherwise we listen with too rigid a dictionary definition at hand. The best we can do with language is bend words to reach perspectives that lie outside the usual, plodding frames. 

Whether or not I change is irrelevant to me when I write. It’s about the potential for life itself. And all life forms are embodiments of that life. So it’s mine, but without any sense of image or identity. It’s “the force that through the green fuse drives the flower”. It’s impersonal optimism, not personal.

So it’s possible to see where this problem takes us. The collapse and utter destruction of a too-literally imagined world implies the birth of a metaphoric and prismatic perspective. The problem implies its own resolution.

We are colliding with the limits in our way of perceiving the world. It’s the consequences of this problem of perception that we call “all our disparate problems.” If I’m too sickeningly teacherly at this moment, so be it. So few people are talking about this problem of a too literal imagination. And it’s like a white blood cell encountering the virus. It wants to chew that fucker up and spit it out wherever it’s encountered. Because this realization of the real nature of the problem is the resolution that is currently dawning on life itself.

I’m not trying to make anything happen with these essays. I’m only reporting on our demise, and this demise implies the resolution we failed to embody. I feel the presence of Beckett in all of this. We’re doomed, but let’s not look away from the majesty of this mistake.

There’s nothing to be done, as Beckett said. The beauty of this statement is that it’s a revolving door of perception. It’s a double-entendre. From one angle it means there is no real problem, so there is nothing that needs to be done. All our doings have only gotten us caught up in one narrow framework of thought or another, gluing us to that frame forever for most of us, or we leap from one crazy frame to another and remain stuck there too.

But the first, superficial meaning is the one of simple despair — we’re doomed and there’s nothing to be done. And since we’re not facing any real, objective problems, only consequences of imaginary ones, there’s also nothing to be done, because nothing needs to be done; we only need to crash into the futility of what we’re already doing, not as another positive thought, but negatively, in that it changes us immediately. This dead end alone stops our wrong-headed approach to the world, and the imaginary problem dissolves like an old bully. Nothing needs to be done in any usual, rational, forceful, analytical sense. The doing is merely another layer of thought. It’s only in realizing this futility that the resolution of the non-problem becomes obvious.

Beckett always included the resolution along with the despair, because he was looking at the whole picture. If we don’t see the lost resolution we don’t see how tragic our demise really is, how close we really came to a new world. So many academics wrote about Beckett as if he were heavy-footed and somber. To do this they had to ignore or diminish the relentless, light-footed humor gymnastically tripping over every page, especially in the trilogy. That humor came from seeing the situation prismatically, as both a recognition of despair and a recognition of the simple resolution we kept tripping over and never recognizing. The laughter is as deep as the sorrow, because they are inseparable.

I just want to be honest about life before it’s over, and life as a whole is “mine” just as much as it is yours or an ant’s. We are all the body of this earth, and can feel things from that level. It feels like the only real contribution I can make.

But what is it accomplishing? Nothing. It’s just stepping out from behind the curtain of deception and bearing witness to a transformative crash, showing the earth at least that much respect. At the very least owning up to the majesty of the comedy and tragedy of our situation. Because even if the tragedy is this unspeakable horror of a paradise of earth destroyed, of all these beautiful, unimaginably intelligent creatures lost for good, the path we took to this tragedy has been nothing but a comedy of errors, falling over problems that are entirely unreal – problems that are so utterly non-existent that we might as well be tripping over our own shadows.

Footnote: Some will think to themselves, nonsense, we need to work on practical problems. Yes, fine, but the Real problem is thought, and the problem of thought (the confusion of thought and thing) is resolved by seeing the nature of the problem. That alone dissolves the confusion, nothing more needs to be done. So the Real underlying problem doesn’t require an action. When we’re clear headed then many of the problems caused by a too literal sense of self (selfishness) unwind on their own. Systems change, because we can work effectively on the secondary problems only after the root problem of Literalism is resolved.

Footnote #2: A much clearer confrontation with the problem of imagination is found in other essays, such as “Imagine the Limits of the Imagination”, part 1 and part 2.

7 thoughts on “Optimistic Despair: Why there Are No Real Problems in the World, and What to Do About It

  1. Three quarters of the way through reading this it suddenly came to me that there is an exact parallel to what you are saying in terms of psychotherapy (or perhaps ‘inner work’ would be a better way of putting it) – any form of rational inquiry or tactics or problem-solving here embroils us further in whatever tangles we’re caught in (because we’re extending the field of our assumptions this was and its our assumptions that are the root problem) and so the only thing left is to ‘appreciate the extent of the catastrophe that has befallen us’. Not just quickly or in passing but to really see it as if one is studying a masterpiece of art in a museum or something like that. This is not exactly what we want to do of course but that is where consciousness comes in, rather than despair. Or rather it is despair and a sense of doom but it’s not important, as you say. It’s doom that doesn’t really matter, to paraphrase or rephrase the quote you gave by Paul Watzlawick. In this unconditional appreciation of the colossal magnitude of our error lies perfect freedom!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I just recalled the last lines from Eliot’s “Ash Wednesday”: Teach us to care and not to care/Teach us to sit still

      It’s also the issue driving the little story I wrote about being abducted by aliens — how to sit still, not mind, the onrushing death. Krishnamurti once said, as a rare aside of sorts, stopped his talk, maybe because people always seemed to want so much from him in ways that seemed I think to him sometimes as not serious enough, still clamoring for image. He said, “you want to know what my secret is? I don’t mind what happens.” It’s odd to think of not minding the onrushing crash, the climate catastrophe and all that implies. But what good does all the ‘minding’, the problem solving, the worry do? It contributes to the momentum of the crash. Easy to say of course, but there is an angle that opens up now and then where this is felt in the bones, but it’s so fleeting in all this cacophony of thought. I dig towards it negatively, by removal if I can, and it’s like a prayer without demands, a concern without minding, a still point in the turning world.


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