In navigating the pathways in our lives, we all are confronted with lots of problems to solve on a regular basis. Problems are those situations that have to be corrected in order to make our lives more comfortable, more functional, and more safe. In more traditional societies many problems were conceived of as something that had to be fixed through direct engagement involving immediate primary experience. Without the availability of modern machines to overcome the difficulties in problems, people had to grapple sometime with friction-filled situations using the flowing blendable continual stimuli of technique and craftsmanship to create solutions in societies where material tools were basic.
Of course not all problems lend themselves to solutions with tools or materials. Medical problems don’t always respond to the medicines or herbs that are available. Social and political problems are too intangible and complex to always lend themselves to basic solutions. And then there are questions about death and the universe which lend themselves to complex but inconclusive discussions about vacuumized entities like gods, angels, and a wealth of mythological creatures. Finally, there are the personal problems of psychological states: anxiety, depression, phobias, compulsions, hallucinations, and others. In preindustrial societies, people with mental problems were frequently looked at as being controlled by an outside force: everything from the curse of a sorcerer to a witch to a wandering soul to a devil. What these attempted explanations or solutions have in common is that they aren’t based on the defined discrete stimuli of data and statistics. They are based on the more blurry flowing blendable continual stimuli of natural medicines and herbs, philosophical ideas, spiritual and mythological entities and sorcerers, witches, wandering souls, and devils. Even though the spiritual, mythological and magical entities partly belong in a vacuumized spirit world, they are also pretty grounded in natural organic stimuli.
All this is in stark contrast to the preferred methods of solving problems in modern technological society. For one thing, the tools used to fix problems in external world reality are so different. Electric saws, drills and hammers, on one level, make fixing processes easier and quicker. On the other hand, they create a lot of abrasive stimuli and abrasive friction in the form of bursts of pressure, bursts of noise, and bursts of dust. In other words, these modern machine tools create vacuum and tension-pocket experiences. Then, there are all the digitally-based machines that make and fix things through totally mediated processes. Nowadays, it is frequently easier and cheaper to replace something that is broken than to bother to try and fix it. And this is because all the digital tools we use to carry out our basic daily tasks have become so complex.
And then there is the preferred way that we deal with thought problems today. We no longer seem to trust intuition or philosophical abstraction so much. We want direct physical sensory evidence for dealing with every problem. And for solutions, we prefer the approaches of hard science: formal experimentation, logic, data, and statistics. These are kinds of knowledge that lead to narrow shallow solutions. And this is because these sources are all based on defined discrete entities: a piece of hard evidence, an axiom of hard logic, a confirmed piece of data, a confirmed statistic. There are a delimited infinity of these defined discrete entities, which, as has been pointed out in the past in this column, is a smaller infinity than the non-delimited infinity of more flowing blendable continual entities like an intuition or a blurry abstraction.
Delimited infinities are more controllable because they deal with fewer entities. But they leave out so many different possibilities. Not all solutions to problems are based on hard knowledge or hard facts. Some are based on blurry intuition and blurry abstraction. Delimited infinities of defined discrete entities are not conducive to developing the expansive global solutions that some kinds of problems may require. Many of the problems in modern society like mass murders, opioid addictions, addictions to authoritarian cult figures like Trump, propensities to suicidal tendencies just do not lend themselves to easy explanations from defined discrete causality. The only explanations that are possible and appropriate are based on changes in the blurry configuration of how people experience the world. But these are not the kinds of explanations that most people are primed to look for in modern technological society. They want delimited responses. They want controllable delimited solutions.
People today want to turn all life situations into controllable events with defined beginnings, defined middles and defined solutions at the end. In the process of configuring life this way, they lose the vibrancy of life experience, which is normally a part of the solutions in more traditional pre-industrial societies. In other words, in more traditional societies, part of the solution to a problem lies in the journey to the solution, rather than exclusively in the endpoint or the goal. Life as a series of completed goals or solutions is a life that is missing something very fundamental: life. It is one reason that so many people today experience psychological problems like anxiety, depression and suicidal tendencies. Even in their patterns of thought, some traditional people have known that sometimes it is necessary to surrender to a situation rather than try and control it. Not surrender in the sense of defeat, but surrender in the sense of fully opening oneself up to experiencing something. And then, rather than simply using analysis, one uses intuition. Intuition is not as controllable as analysis, but it can lead to solutions that are just as effective in their own way. And it allows people to feel life, even as they are trying to solve it.
(c) 2020 Laurence Mesirow