Life is not a problem to be solved, but a reality to be experienced. (Kierkegaard)
Think about the deep wisdom contained in that epithet.
We have grown a rather large culture of “problem solvers” whose expectations of developing an expertise, and then proceeding into the deepest wells of that speciality in order to unearth new problems, themselves, begging for solution. And the more “value” the culture places on the speciality, and the more public attention and adulation it magnetizes, the relatively higher the social and political status of the “expert”.
There is no doubt that everyone comes upon problems that require a resourceful, creative and pragmatic approach in their resolution. And, there is also no denying that, through the succession of increasingly complex problems solved, an individual matures in ways that render him/her indispensable to family, community and planet. Agency, that sine qua non of the definition of “identity” for many, has some integral features: the expectation of success/failure in the process of “solving” the problem, the confidence to accomplish, the resilience to approach the difficult and the intractable situation with a kind of calm composure, and the potential that “fixing” the problem will evoke applause and public endorsement.
It is, however, also feasible, even likely, that beginning with the notion of “agency” comes to define how life works for many. “Doing” and “solving” and then “doing” and “solving” again, and again, becomes a pattern that lends itself so seductively into a repeating, expected and even needed pathway, for the individual, the family, and the organization to which one becomes attached in adulthood. Yet, rather than applying the mantra to one’s life, one readily and almost imperceptibly falls into the application of the mantra to one’s occupation, and not one’s life.
For many, the two concepts, life/work have elided into an existence that frequently sees the latter flow like a tsunami into the psyche of one’s life. One’s “work” where agency, productivity, measureable value (and compensation), standard of performance, graduating proficiencies and responsibilities, and the development/acquisition of the requisite skills in order to “fit” have a very strong tendency, if not inevitability, of swamping that other side of one’s existence, one’s life.
What does one mean, in uttering the word “life”? Different from “agency” and “means” and “making a living” and being and remaining an agent for one’s livelihood, and also for the goals and objectives of a larger entity, “life” entails the inner processes that seek to grasp, or tolerate, to examine, to question and to wonder.. Larger questions, usually considered imponderable, and unlikely to be easily or finally answered come into focus under the rubric of “life”…. such “why am I here?” and “Is there life in space?” and “Is there another realm after this life?” and “What comprises beauty for me?” and “What is the meaning of ‘evil’ in the world?” and “Is there even a God?” and “How have genetics and my environment impacted my choices?” and “How have the existentialists, the fatalists, the empiricists, the visionaries, the poets and the philosophers impacted my life?” And “Would/Do I choose to implement a different equation among the role models?” and “What has been, is and will continue to be the impact of archetypes like the apocalypse in our thinking, planning and survival?” and “Is there a way out of/around/through/without war and large-scale violence?” And then there are other more intimate questions like, “How have others seen, experienced, interpreted and judged my person and my life?” and “To what extent have my activities been congruent with my identity?” and “What have I learned by making the choices I have made?” and “Upon reflection, if given the opportunity, what changes would I have made in the choices I exercised?”
The meanings of “work” and “life,” while never exclusive or independent of each other, require space, time, energy and a deliberate and disciplined process for reflection. However, given that “work” brings immediate gratification (and the potential of loss) whereas “life” just seems to roll along like the interminable waters of an adjacent river, whether it is being noticed, or reflected upon, evaluated or not, there is little wonder that much of our “time” while awake is taken up with those things we have to “DO”!
How many busy people, when asked, “What would you be doing with your life, if you had an empty canvas on which to paint it today?” look up, askance, at the questioner in disbelief. It is as if the questioner has lost his marbles, the question seems to absurd. The subject being asked is so deeply engrossed, even consumed, with the list of “to-do’s” for the day, the week, the month and even the year that such questions have literally no meaning, no purpose and no value for most people.
And yet…..like the volcanic rumble of the human heart (as the metaphor for the range of human emotions) busy people are wont to ignore, deny or dismiss the sounds and the rhythms of their own internal volcanic stirrings. Identity, given the current political obsession with sexual identity, or ethic identity, or linguistic identity, or political ideologic identity, all of them reductions when taken individually, cannot and never will come to grips with the really complex, chemical, and ecological, anatomical, physiological, psychological, spiritual dimensions of one’s person.
And humans are sidled with the proposition that, at one and the same time, we are both subject and object (reminded of this dichotomy by Rollo May), the agent of our actions (singly or collaboratively) and the subject of our reflections (on our actions and our persons, including our relationships).
It is true that we all reflect when and subsequently to viewing a moving film or piece of theatre, reading a text with layers of language and meaning, listening to a symphony or Beethoven Sonata, or meeting an interesting person who actually ‘shows up’ in our presence, invoking our full participation in the encounter.
A significant malaise of the “agency” problem-solving perspective is that it leaves the locus of control outside one’s person, in terms of “fixing” the problem. Extrinsic control, also by its very nature, provides escape from the often difficult and treacherous gaze into the mirror of our inner lives, where we are invited, if not compelled to come face to face with everything we have done, been, said, and even thought or believed.
And here is where the notion of “experienced” (not solved) comes into vigorous and inexorable play. Although the Christian church wants us to “pray for forgiveness” and to offer forgiveness to those who have injured us in any way, the far more challenging prospect is to be open to, receptive to and humble enough to receive a degree of forgiveness through a “new-life” kind of conscious perception of a far wider and deeper picture of the many chapters of our lives, from the vantage of decades of distance.
Not having been either conscious or unconscious of the notion that we are “worthy” and “valued” and “loveable” and “honourable” and potentially even kind and generous, altruistic and humble, if and when we live in a place where those perceptions and attitudes hold sway, we have all done/said/believed/perceived/ attitudes and actions that did not then, and would not today, comport with our expectations of our best angels. And to the extent that those best angels were absent, silent, muzzled, distorted or even over-powered by our potential for revenge, for pay-back, for getting even, for destroying, for bursting the balloon of another….for whatever inadequacy, insecurity, malice and fear that had taken hold of our persons….we nevertheless did what we have to now consider our best.
And in that process, we can then grant to the others whose incidents of “crossing” our paths generated such pain and woundedness, the same kind of tolerance, empathy and acceptance.
Existing inside the flow our own interior rivers of unconscious, just like the rivers that cascade down our hills and valleys, our rivers will stir up memories, like silt, and uncover boulders permitting new light to shine where once ignorance, intolerance and judgement reigned. And that process is more likely if we have begun to entertain the notion of a “life” to be experienced, while simultaneously attempting to make a living, by solving problems.