Tag Archives: problems

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!

Polarity-Breathing

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!

Digression: difficulties versus problems?

Problems1

When you encounter issues that trouble you, are they difficulties or are they problems? Is global warming a difficulty, or is it a problem?

In this post, I want to clarify the distinction between difficulties and problems — I think it is an important distinction in the issues of cultural maturity. I explain it clearly in my book Acedia, and I am simply going to quote it here:

In Change: Principles of Problem Formation and Problem Resolution, Watzlawick et al (1974) note difficulties simply as an undesirable state of affairs, and problems as issues created and maintained [my emphasis] by the mishandling of difficulties. Difficulties can either be 1) resolved through some common-sense action, or 2) they are “undesirable but usually quite common life situations for which there exists no known solution and which—at least for the time being—must simply be lived with” (pp. 38-39). As example, “death” is a difficulty; there is no solution, only resolution. I also propose that acedia is a difficulty—whereas one can repeatedly choose the path of health, this choice is always between health and acedia (otherwise there would never be internal conflict).

Watzlawick et al (1974, p. 39) also note that there are basically three ways in which problems arise: 1) denial of the difficulty; 2) change is attempted when, for all practical purposes, the difficulty is unchangeable; and 3) action occurs in a way that sustains the difficulty. I propose that climate change is both a difficulty and a problem. We have not yet reached a resolution, yet alone a solution, and there is great denial, as well as a predominant focus simply on economics and technological change as a solution to climate issues. Technological resolutions may resolve the immediate situation, but I cannot foresee how it will lead to significant change in the underlying issue of acedia, or the fundamental deficits of our society that have promoted climate change.

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.

An example. At one point in my careers, I was a specialist anaesthetist, a physician skilled in both caring for patients in the operating room, and also in the intensive care unit. One of the difficulties of intensive care, especially with more prolonged disorders of health, is that death is a frequent outcome, despite good care. Death is a natural outcome of life (a difficulty), sometimes sad but always inevitable for every person — it is just not clear when. What used to amaze me was the number of physicians who were angry that patients died; these physicians somehow were attempting to solve death (death was a problem), rather than be at peace that, despite their best efforts, patients died.

I also knew that there was a huge financial investment in stopping death — I vaguely recall (~1985) that almost 50% of medical costs (American, but also likely Canadian) occurred within the last three months of life, i.e., preventing death. Much of this cost may have been appropriate; some was not. I knew the factors involved in the choices to continue care in these difficult situations. Broad brushstrokes — patients with failure of more than two organ systems did not survive; patients with life-threatening blunt trauma (car accidents, for example) did not survive.

So my standard, part of my personal living will, is that if I am unconscious and have more than two systems in failure (e.g., stroke and kidney failure, on a respirator), I do not wish ongoing treatment. Let death be the natural outcome; I do not wish to be a problem.

Tomorrow:

Solvable (right/wrong) problems and resolvable (polarity) problems.

The Force Field of Change

ChangeFF

I woke up this morning aware that, for me to continue this discussion of envisioning a mature society, there are a number of digressions that I need to introduce. I want my writing to emphasize useful process, rather than utopian ideas. So —

  • the Force Field of Change,
  • the factors that determine change,
  • the differences between difficulties and problems. and
  • the differences between solvable and resolvable difficulties.

I need to explore these so as to have clarity of language — clarity of language is so important to me. If I am to make my musings meaningful, I need to write about them in a way that communicates what I want to say.

One of the difficulties of life is that it is a miracle that human beings are able to communicate at all — there are so many nuances to be overcome. A couple of statements emphasize this for me:

“I believe you understand what you think I said but I’m not sure you realize that what you heard is not what I said,”

and (this time with emphasis)

I believe you understand what you think I said but I’m not sure you realize that what you heard is not what I said.”

Onwards and upwards — the Force Field of Change.

Force Fields are way to indicate that factors that come into a problem, in this case: change. (I’ve described them in a different context in an earlier post.) Effective change requires:

  • honesty as to where I am in the present (best with a sensory-grounded description of what is actually occurring,
  • a detailed vision of what I want in the future (essentially the scenery on the road),
  • a description of the forces that are assisting me in moving forward (the motivating factors), and
  • a description of the forces that are stopping my progress (the deterrent forces).

Together, all of this determines where I am in the present, balanced within the various forces. But I am not in the future. If I am to get to the future, I need to augment the motivating forWarmingFFces, the driving forces, and diminish the deterrent forces, the restraining forces. From my perspective as therapist, I suggest that diminishing the deterrent forces is more powerful than augment the motivators. But it is more painful to do so, and therefore people often focus on the augmentors.

Applied to the issues of seeking a mature culture, global warming is only one of the restraining forces. For the most part, climate change is a technological issue, but the underlying forces driving it are emotional. In my PhD, I identified these forces as the acedia of our culture; the force field thus became:

  • diminishing the many ways in which we traumatize ourselves, and
  • increasing the factors that move us to maturity: wisdom, discipline, hope, and playfulness.

AcediaDeterminants

Appropriately modifying all of these forces must become intentional parts of daily living in a maturing society.

Tomorrow: the factors that determine change.