Problem and Resolution: Why Optimism Is Not Necessarily Personal

bird cage

Anything and everything, depending on how one sees it, is a marvel or a hindrance, an all or a nothing, a path or a problem (Fernando Pessoa)

Why are problems sometimes interesting and sometimes frustrating?

I think if we’re too focused on obtaining a solution, a way past the problem, then the persistence of the problem can lead to despair and frustration. But if the problem itself is interesting, if its persistence is seen as the unfoldment of a mystery, then the problem is something we’re enjoying and we’re not merely trying to get rid of the problem.

When it comes to the “problem of Literalism” — which is the problem of thought, of being confused by our projections, as humanity has tended to be — the “solution” to the problem of Literalism is so rare that it either gets dismissed outright as an impossibility, or it tends to get labeled as “enlightenment” or “grace” or some other pedestaled conjecture, which are various forms of escape from the problem itself.

Most reasonable people will try to avoid tackling a problem that almost nobody in history has resolved, such as Literalism. From this personal angle, their hope of resolution is squashed immediately by realizing that almost nobody has ever solved this problem of thought, so why should they? Who are they to imagine that the solution is within reach? To avoid embarrassing delusions of grandeur and inevitable failure a seemingly humbler response would be to ignore the problem.

But this reaction is premised on the desire to get past the problem, rather than enjoy the problem.

But reasonable people don’t enjoy the problem. If they can’t get past it, they don’t want to consider it.

The problem is, we can’t enjoy a problem if we don’t recognize a possibility of resolution. But if we focus too much on resolving a problem, then we’re trying to get past the problem too ambitiously, which means we don’t enjoy the problem, which means the problem never resolves!

So most reasonable people get stuck between these two poles, hoisted on a double-bind that not only blocks any further interest but also wears them out.

For some of us the double-bind looks like this: I am interested in the problem of thought, of how we confuse ourselves by our own images and beliefs, but this interest inevitably leads to hopes of personal freedom from confusion, and I’m embarrassed by this hope. It’s too much like a childish hope for salvation or enlightenment. Therefore I’d rather not look at the problem anymore, because it inevitably stirs up a hope of “getting past it” that ruins the interest itself.

Interest stirs, but hope kills the interest, so it’s like an engine that is constantly suffering the friction of turning on and off repeatedly until it wears out.

This is what happens any time we contend with a situation that feels utterly insurmountable, but which drives us in circles looking for an escape nevertheless. For instance, the constantly jabbering brain. We want peace, but it only comes when it’s not sought, and never stays for long.

Caged and Uncaged Resolutions

In such cases, it’s very difficult to distinguish an interest in the problem/resolution from an interest in the resolution only. In other words, it’s hard to distinguish an interest “In” the problem from an interest in “getting past” the problem. When it comes to the problem of Literalism (which is the source of a jabbering brain as I’ve discussed many times already), interest in this problem/resolution generates energy and interest in the resolution only generates frustration and exhaustion.

But these two motives can be distinguished easier by looking through a negative and positive lens. If you listen to most philosophers, say Foucault, for instance, and his analysis of Power, it’s very insightful, no doubt. But like most philosophers, he feels obliged to map the new meaning in a web of words. It’s an attempt to positively capture meaning in some mediated form, whether mathematical, linguistic or some other conceptual art. The philosopher is too concerned with definitions and casting linguistic nets. (I feel I’m doing something else, but see for yourself). In other words, most philosophers are still Literal, still tied to language in the same way most scientists are still tied to materialism.

One of the deepest assumptions of western culture is that intelligence doesn’t exist until an organizing net of some kind captures the meaning. That’s why language is widely assumed to be the nature of intelligence itself. Until we capture a meaning in the weave of words, nothing is known.

This is a positive approach to meaning. The positive approach places a transparency of explanation over the otherwise amorphous world in order to “make” meaning.

Positive intelligence of this sort is often helpful. The problem is that it’s a jealous intelligence, which belittles forms of intelligence that don’t do this, that don’t posit linguistic meaning or see language and thought as the only avenues for intelligence. Negative intelligence moves in a contrary (but ultimately complimentary) direction, unlocking the cages of meaning that we have made, which stirs more questions to life. Resolutions also occur through negation, but these are primarily dissolutions of positive certainties, the disentanglement of the webs of thought that held us too tightly to our hidden assumptions.

This unconscious tendency towards positivism keeps us searching for answers outside the problem, whereas negative inquiry keeps us interested in the problem itself (which includes a “recessive” interest in the resolution).

There are deeper, more systemic minds than the individual, social or even ancient cultural minds. That is, all these varieties of human “minds” that have developed are premised on even deeper shared presumptions that humanity has never questioned. One is this orientation towards positivism. Post-modernism questioned the certainties of positivism, but it didn’t see a way to question positivism itself. It still tied itself to linguistic or literal frameworks. Buddhism and Taoism went farther (farther than me obviously) but tended to side entirely with negation and belittle the significance of any posited or linguistic contribution.

So I’d like to invite positivism to stick around and contribute to the resolution of Literalism and not get thrown out with the bathwater this time. The question is whether we want to keep working towards caged answers and solutions, or whether we want the negative spirit (the spirit of reversal) to take charge, freeing us from these caged and abstract solutions. If we let the problem run free, then our problems begin to resolve themselves without the need for linguistic certainty (although we still need linguistic clarity).

The positive and the negative work hand-in-hand when this becomes clear. Positive nets or cages can be used less “positively”, less literally. They can squeeze the universe into peculiar shapes from which we can derive insights, but only if negation reminds us to release these shapes, to make sure no cages remain, so that our perspective doesn’t get permanently stuck.

This means our theories become more metaphoric, less interested in “getting past” a problem, less interested in linguistic or literal answers, and more interested in swinging from question to more profound questions, as we become more interested in the problem (or rather the mystery) than the solution.

Why the Problem of Literalism Seems Uninteresting

Many reasonable people will work on complex problems in other areas of life without running into frustrating double-binds. They may be systems analysts, for instance. It might take them years to develop a system that organizes the flow of information in a given field. In all that time they don’t tend to get frustrated (or only periodically) with the unresolved problem. They remain interested in the problem partially because they sense the possibility of a resolution. But this possibility doesn’t become an abstract ambition. It remains grounded in the fascinating puzzle of the problem itself.

And without that dawning sense of a potential resolution they would have no interest in the problem. I mean, it’s impossible to be interested in a problem without also sensing the shape of its resolution. Problem and resolution are inseparable, as Krishnamurti often noted. But if they are too interested in resolving the problem, they become impatient and uninterested in the problem itself.

So a subtle balance is found, where the shape of the problem is the driving interest, and within the shape of this problem, confusions resolve themselves, which is part of the draw, but only a small part.

In other words, the resolution never becomes an abstraction that stands alone as a transcendent hope, such as enlightenment or some other bogus distraction.

However, the problem of Literalism is so fundamental, and implies such a profound resolution, that transcendent hope tends to get stirred to life. So some especially reasonable people will remain interested in the problem of Literalism as much as possible without allowing themselves to get attracted by the possibility of a resolution. This may sound nuts to those who don’t do this. But I did this, maybe still do at times, and I know others who do this. They are afraid that the resolution will stir up too much personal hope for grandiose transcendence. They tend to keep tight reigns on the ego. But in denying themselves a close examination of the resolution, they’re denying themselves a full examination of the problem, because the answer is IN the problem, as K noted.

In other words, when they see their own impatience or their own gullible desire for transcendence, they feel they have made a fatal error and give up. (They don’t “deserve” the resolution). But the errors they make reveal the shape of the problem AND its resolution. And this problem doesn’t take shape solely in the individual, but in the system of thought. So there’s no reason for guilt. No individual will ever encounter themselves without error. If we don’t see this, then we end up trying to “get past” the problem and become perfect (even though we are trying to be perfectly humble), which is the problem of Literalism itself. We end up taking ourselves too seriously even when we’re trying to restrain the ego, or maybe especially then.

It’s our hidden desire for perfection which is the interesting “problem.” We sense a resolution in this discovery, but it’s not a resolution suitable for the individual. That is, I can’t root out my own desire for perfection without trying to be perfect. The individual runs into a double-bind, but it’s not the individual’s fault. The tendency towards perfection is rooted in an impersonal or systemic mind. The individual can’t reach this resolution by any personal motive. It’s systemic, not personal.

So when we begin to sense the implicit resolution, it’s not a personal anticipation. We need to feel within the problem its own potential systemic dissolution. This doesn’t generate personal optimism, only “systemic optimism”, like the optimism a very old grandfather might feel in watching his grandkids. He is sharing in their potential even though he knows he’s dying.

The Shape of the Resolution

So I’m not writing about personal problems and solutions. I’m writing about impersonal or systemic problems and resolutions. The system of thought is tied up in a double-bind that is essentially a slip-knot. It’s not a real knot, it’s only a confusion of mirror images. Thought is fooled by its own reflections and treats these reflections as realities. The more it tries to solve the problems in its reflections the more entranced and confused it becomes by these projected images. See, this implies the resolution. The resolution is not an answer, but a realization of error, a negative discovery that breaks the spellbound attraction to these flickering images.

This is the resolution of Thought as a category, not a resolution of my own personal thought. Personal thought will never realize this mistake, because it remains too Literal, it takes itself too seriously. It wants to convert this systemic resolution into a personal gain, so it can’t learn this error. This error is beyond the grasp of a personal mind.

You might say that the enlightened perspective is impersonal or systemic — it’s the very absence of a personal mind.

The personal mind (the literal sense of Self) has no hope of realizing any of this. The impersonal or systemic perspective can only allow the personal to be replaced. It doesn’t give a damn about personal resolution (or salvation), because it knows that any personal resolution is realized through an impersonal or systemic perspective. The personal remains then only as metaphor, not as a primary frame.

This resolution isn’t even tied to humanity. It’s even more impersonal than “our species.” It’s the resolution of a Literalism to which any living thing can become susceptible. Even if humanity goes extinct, this resolution is still manifesting. You, me and our whole species may or may not realize this resolution, but the resolution is still opening for life itself.

And after all, we’re not simply individuals, not simply humans, we’re also beings, unknowable portions of life itself, so even though we can’t identify with this resolution as “our own”, it can still be felt, it still courses through these human veins, even though it can’t be caged as a personal accomplishment or literal answer.

So I’m just reporting on life as a member of a dying species, without personal hope – this is where we went wrong, confusing thought and thing. This is also the implicit resolution, which the strictly human or the strictly personal sense of Self can never realize.

[The essay “Optimistic Despair: Why there Are No Real Problems in the World and What to Do About It” is very similar to this].

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