“It’s not enough to be busy; so are the ants. The question is: what are we busy about?”
– Henry David Thoreau
In the spiritual arena people often search for the reason a given tragedy happened. “What is (the Cosmic Force) pointing to here?” they might ask, or “What is the lesson this event is asking me to learn?” In the business and corporate arena, too often such a search is for someone else (or somewhere else) to blame. No one wants to say, “The buck stops here,” and in so doing, take responsibility for their role in the fiasco. Instead, they enter into a form of problem-solving in which they look for an external cause of what went wrong.
Searching for the lesson inherent in any given situation that we interpret as “having gone badly,” or looking to assign blame to something external to ourselves, constitutes a style of problem-solving that limits our ability to see the larger picture and the possibilities that the experience may give rise to. Instead of seeing the potentialities that are present in the aftermath of the event, we tend to look at only the negative aspects involved in the event itself.
Additionally, spending too much time going over and over the upsetting event and obsessing over what we could have done differently to prevent it can gobble up precious time and energy. Wouldn’t this time and energy be better spent making meaning from the course of events and creating a path forward from that, from what is happening now as a result of what happened then?
In the event of a tragedy, we should also ponder whether it’s even advisable to search for the metaphysical lesson that may or may not be contained in the happenstance. If a tree falls on your house, for instance, or your house is swept away by the rising river, perhaps there is no deep lesson to be learned. As Freud (is rumored to have) said, “Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.”
Our culture endorses a search-and-destroy mentality—search for the problem and then annihilate the problem. This limits us because, in any given situation, there is typically a myriad of other circumstances that contribute to the construction of the scenario and the potential that it holds. Life is a messy, beautiful, tragic paradox and we need to stop trying to fit it into one neat package of a problem to be solved or a lesson to be learned.
In my view, everything is workable, and constructive meaning can be made from even the most difficult and bizarre circumstances.
In David Bohm’s On Dialogue, the late theoretical physicist challenges the perception of our difficulties as “problems,” rather than the paradoxes they are. “One can see good reason to raise such a point, and to suspect that the attempt to treat our current difficulties as “problems” may be one of the more important factors preventing these difficulties from being brought to a workable solution.”
What we must understand instead is that the very thing we name as “the problem” may, in actual fact, be a silver bullet of possibility.
Recent research on the brain shows that we can rewire our brains (and retrain the mind). The brain is a flexible organ in that it is growing all the time; new pathways are constantly being established. In the same way, we must learn to think in terms of possibilities rather than what we may consider to be insurmountable problems and challenges, because “problem-solving” in the old-fashioned sense is apt to limit our perception of what is possible now. And as we all know, life is to be lived in the present moment, not in the past, and not in the future, but right here, right now.
When we learn to understand difficulties as paradoxes, life gets a lot more interesting and a little less daunting.
“We are faced with a breakdown of general social order and human values that threatens stability throughout the world. Existing knowledge cannot meet this challenge. Something much deeper is needed, a completely new approach. I am suggesting that the very means by which we try to solve our problems is the problem.” – David Bohm
This doesn’t mean we don’t learn from our mistakes. We can. We learn better from the past when we experience and evaluate the past in terms of the present. Meaning, you are where you are now because of choices and mistakes you made up until now. In this, we can choose to live creatively with what life brings us. We do this by opening ourselves up to all that is going on in the moment and being willing to focus on making meaning from what arises in any given moment. We can choose to take 100 percent responsibility for our experiences and empower ourselves with this responsibility. I may not have caused the tree to fall on my house but I am not going to blame god or nature either. I am going to first rebuild my roof. Then, I will consider what I want to do with the wood from the fallen tree.
This is a basic analogy that can act as a metaphor for what may be any emotional and complex situation that we encounter—such as contracting a serious illness, going through a divorce, or losing someone you love. We all get sick, experience loss, and encounter inexplicable tragedy. These aren’t problems as much as they are the paradoxes of life.
Difficulties do not necessarily point to your having doing something wrong—they underscore the profound paradox of being truly alive.
“The ability to perceive or think differently is more important than the knowledge gained.” – David Bohm
“In essence, therefore, what is needed is to go on with life in its wholeness and entirety, but with sustained, serious, careful attention to the fact that the mind, through centuries of conditioning, tends, for the most part, to be caught in paradoxes, and to mistake the resulting difficulties for problems.” – David Bohm