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Editorial: Unsolvable problems and unfixable you

Published: 3/17/2019 12:05:07 AM

A thoroughly researched and well-written history unfolds like a good novel. Characters big and small, stripped of myth and embellishment, reclaim the humanity deprived of them by time and narrative malpractice. Page after page, decision after decision, history’s protagonists and antagonists move toward and through their defining moments not as gods or demons but as girls and boys, women and men. It is in the restoration of humanness, along the path of fame or infamy, that history finds its drama.

Current events, as they play out in the pages of a newspaper, often do not have that kind of satisfying arc. Sometimes there is no arc at all. Compare a month of newspapers from 1949 with a month’s worth from 2019 and you will be struck by how little the major debates have really progressed in 70 years. Crime, education, poverty, immigration, health care, taxation, inequality, war, the role of government – all troubled the American people then as now. The fundamental positions are familiar in tone and rigidity. These issues, the ones that often divide and sometimes destroy nations, are the forever problems of civilization.

As if it isn’t disheartening enough that these problems are unsolvable on this side of utopia, there is a sense that people are to blame for not being better human beings. And the worst of the bunch, of course, are those with whom you disagree.

The joke underlying the whole mess begins with the premise that the only way to improve the world is to first improve yourself and then hope others do the same. And the punchline, wonderfully articulated by the late philosopher Alan Watts, is delivered as a double bind: The self that will be doing the improving is the same self in need of improvement – and that means it can’t be done. If you could be a better person, you already would be. This bit of human folly is based on the illusion of duality and ego. There is no thinker of thoughts or feeler of feelings or experiencer of experiences; there are only thoughts and feelings and experiences.

To further illustrate the point, Watts tells the story of a Buddhist monk who is informed by his master that personal enlightenment can be attained only through the cessation of suffering, and all suffering is caused by desire. Eliminate desire and you eliminate suffering, the master says, and thus you will be enlightened. After years in the forest, in which the monk destroys one desire after another yet suffers still, he confronts his master. “You suffer,” the master tells the monk, “because you desire to stop desiring.”

If “you” cannot make “you” a better person in a world saddled with forever problems that can be solved only by better people, humanity, it would seem, is hopelessly stuck. But that’s not the case at all, as any reader of history and newspapers knows.

Right now, there are people hard at work on the forever problems that plague mankind. They toil not under the illusion that they will find the true solution or that by attempting to solve the problem they will become better humans, but with an understanding of what the moment requires of them. They are not on Twitter crafting scathing one-liners or attempting to strengthen their own positions by attacking the opinions and perceptions of others. They do not see themselves as separated from others by political or religious affiliation, gender or race, geography or privilege. They are in the trenches of illumination and advancement, many of them unknown and thus uncelebrated, to benefit not just themselves or their clan but all who live and breathe. They are heroes not of history or future, but of now.

“Things are not explained by the past,” Watts once said. “They are explained by what happens now. That creates the past, and it begins here. That’s the birth of responsibility.”

You cannot undo what has been done any more than you can guarantee what happens tomorrow. Now is all there is. How will you serve the moment?

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