Holding both the positive aspects of a problem and reality of there being a problem

[Probably obvious to many (most?) of my readers, but the obvious often bears saying aloud.]

This morning, as part of my rest day, I did the first exercise of Claudia Altucher’s book, Become an Idea Machine, which is mostly a series of prompts for generating 10 (or more) new ideas, one prompt a day.

The first prompt is to take 10 complaints that you have, and for each one, turn it into a positive expression of gratitude. She gives the example of hating being stuck in traffic every day, and generating from that, “I am grateful that I live in a city that has so much traffic because that means there [are] plenty of opportunities here, and I can meet lots of interesting people.” You’re supposed to do this ten times, on your own problems.

I think that this is a great exercise. I imagine that I tend to be too rigid in my assessment of circumstances, and there are in fact a lot of good things resulting from a “problem”, which I fail to apprehend, because I’m stuck in my existing mindset. Done well, I think this mental motion shouldn’t feel like a self-trick, whereby you convince yourself that “the grapes were probably sour anyway.” Instead it feels like uncovering actual value, henceforth unnoticed, all around you.

As an example, my fourth most pressing problem is the lack of satisfying romantic partnership. And it is natural to focus on the pain or longing of that situation. But also, not having a partner means that I have a lot of solitary time, to think and work and do what I want, which I really value. By default, I think I wouldn’t notice how much I value that alone-time unless I did have a partner, at which point I might start to feel stifled. Hedonically, it seems like a bug if I only pay attention to the aspects of a situation that I dislike.

So I think appreciating what’s good about things that we might reflexively label as bad.

However, I think that it is crucial, if we want to be balanced and sane, that we not lose track of the problem being bad in this process.

It is right and good for the paraplegic to savor the way his disability forces him to slow down and be reflective, and “stop and smell the roses.” But that doesn’t mean that he can’t assess the situation, the pros and cons, and determine that on net, it would be better to be able to walk (and climb and run).

Likewise, it is extremely appropriate to look around at the way the recent pandemic has brought communities together, and the way that it has brought out heroism in many, and feel pleased and proud. But that doesn’t mean that we have to say that the pandemic is good, or that we shouldn’t wish that it hadn’t happened.

The claim “there is often unrecognized good in what seems to be bad” does not entail that “everything that seems bad is actually good”, (or the related “everything happens for a reason”). When we conflate the first with the second(s) them we’re  setting ourselves up for a kind of Stockholm syndrome of the present, a massive status quo bias.

There is more good in the world than we often appreciate by default. And the world is complex, and it is often hard to tell what the ultimate consequence of something will be. But that does not mean that we abdicate our sacred right to weigh up the pros and cons,  make the best assessment we can of whether a thing is good or bad, and then try to steer the world towards the good. When we do otherwise the consequences can be literally catastrophic.

(Of course this is not to say that everything that we reflexively consider bad is in fact bad on net. We might take something that we hate, consider all the benefits that it gives us and all the costs, and conclude that actually, our initial impression was wrong, and we on reflection, prefer the world with the supposed-to-be-bad thing. Just as we might reconsider our reflexive attitude to something that is supposed to be good, and conclude that on-net, we dis prefer it. [For instance, Brienne’s comment in this thread has had me reevaluating my attitude towards romantic love, lately.])



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s