Difficulties: solvable or resolvable?

A magnet always has two poles.
A magnet always has two poles.

When you have a difficulty, is it solvable? Is global warming solvable?

In this post, I want to explore the distinction between solvable and resolvable. To solve something means that the difficulty it represents goes away — you are complete with it. To resolve something means you are at peace with it — it may still be a difficulty, but you are satisfied that you know what to do about it. (In the last post, I’ll indicated why I talk about difficulties, and the distinction between difficulties and problems, another important distinction.)

The distinction is important — global warming is not solvable; it is resolvable. The underlying factors of global warming, the acedia of our species, is not solvable; it is resolvable. Both issues likely require ongoing life-long attention to our own growth as individuals and as a society so to be at peace with what life offers.

An excellent description of the distinction is found in Polarity Management by Barry Johnson — what follows is principally my summary of his paper. I use slightly different language from Barry — solvable instead of right/wrong, and resolvable instead of polarity.

Solvable (right/wrong): one “right” answer, or two (or more) answers that are “right,” and independent of each other.

  • Right/wrong distinctions are the essential means of transmitting knowledge from one generation to another, e.g., 4 + 4 = 8.
  • Or they contain the cultural messages of right and wrong: “In this culture, we value . . .”
    • Note that if the question is phrased as “Should I value X or Y?” there is the implication that both values are somehow important, and also they are somehow related to each other — they are part of the same dilemma (they are not independent). This is a polarity difficulty, not a right/wrong difficulty (see below) — another example of sloppy language.
  • Solving difficulties creates closure, and eliminates the searching through numerous “wrong” answers.
    • Often the difficulty is phrased: a or b, but only if a and b are independent of each other. Here a and b are facts, such that one is right and the other wrong.
  • >95% of the teachings in formal education are based on solvable (right/wrong) distinctions.
    • Because virtually all our educational experience is in solvable (right/wrong) difficulties, we automatically lock into the possibility of solving difficulties, rather than resolving them.

Resolvable (polarity): two or more answers that are interdependent on each other.

  • These distinctions are essential in passing the socialization elements of culture from one generation to another, e.g., “In my relationship with my friend, should I be concerned about her, or should I be concerned about myself?”
    • Often the difficulty is phrased as or, even though both a and b are right, and there is possibly a choice to be made.

Knowing the distinction between solvable and resolvable, and when to apply appropriate tools to each, is very important to the changing of systems. A major difficulty is that, on first glance, solvable (right/wrong) and resolvable (polarity) difficulties look alike. Because we are so attuned to solvable (right/wrong) difficulties, we tend to approach all difficulties looking for solutions. Then we find a solution — but wonder why we are getting resistance from others for our wonderful solution! Well, we have likely found ½ of a polarity difficulty; the resistance represents the other half!


To better identify the character of resolvable (polarity) difficulties, Johnson suggests the metaphor of breathing. Breathing requires the intake of oxygen (inhalation) and the removal of carbon dioxide (exhalation); both are essential, and are obviously interdependent. There are eight components of importance, in pairs: inhalation and exhalation (neutral, the interdependent processes), death and life (outcomes), why we breath (the need for oxygen intake and carbon dioxide removal — the higher purpose), and the consequences of not breathing (too little oxygen or too much carbon dioxide — the deepest fear). In breathing, you cannot just choose to breath in, or to breath out — both have significant negative consequences; they are interdependent.

The skill of management of polarity difficulties is to find the optimal balance of achieving the positive benefits of both poles (inhalation and exhalation), without the negative consequences of excess of either. With the issue of breathing, the body-mind system does this automatically, generally without our needing to consciously think about the choices or consequences. However most polarity difficulties require careful attention and integration of the benefits of each pole, while minimizing the undesirable consequences of each.

In this blog, I simply want to make the distinction, principally because global warming, and the deeper management of cultural acedia, are both resolvable (polarity) difficulties — they are not solvable. Global warming is especially complex —we have both caused it, in our unconscious behaviors as a species, and there are many interdependent aspects to be considered. It is possible that, as the consequences of global warming become more apparent, we might stumble into a more mature management of the issues, but to bet on this happening is like buying a lottery ticket with the expectation of winning. Not likely!

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