What is the problem with Western culture? How is it we have become so stuck? I’d like to suggest that, gasp, our core issue as a culture is actually our obsession with solving problems. We are a self-help society, and not just in the New Age section of the bookshop, but in the entire Western canon.
Our stories are about heroes who triumph over adversity, or who, when tragically doomed, pit their individual will and wits against the problems anyway. Our religions offer to redeem us from original sin, or from our own faults. Our science and our technology are about progress and overcoming problems based in our human frailties and limitations. Our consumerism is founded on a hope for self-improvement – or worse, on the pernicious drug of convenience: our problems solved for us in advance. Our gyms, our schools, our career ladders, our hospitals, our sports, our social networks and other media all stand on a basic premise of self-help.
And it’s not just our own problems. It’s the problems of society at large. Who doesn’t watch the news at night with the fantasy that somehow they could and should solve the problems presented there? And what news isn’t about problems? Set against the core cultural impulse to solve problems is our intolerance of imperfection, and our impatience to race past it to a ‘new and improved’ version.
Our sense of time and order seem predicated on the assumption of progress – that human intelligence can dominate the world, as well as the complexities of our own lives, and somehow ‘put it right’. Our celebrity culture offers the daydream that a better way of life – a contemporary Mount Olympus – is available at least to the rich and famous. Not that these icons don’t have problems. Indeed, stories abound (as they did about the gods of Olympus) of their infidelities, their addictions and their fatal flaws.
Nowhere is this problem-solving meme more dominant than in government policy. Politicians present a procession of panaceas that will solve all our problems. Obama, The Tea Party, the Big Society: the promise is to tackle the ‘problems’, be they obesity, employability or the broken economy. Sustainability is a prime example of this style of thinking: let’s reduce carbon emissions, change behaviour and generally solve our environmental problems, without wondering too much about their causes.
Contrast this Western problem-solving outlook with Wabi Sabi, the characteristic Japanese aesthetic that underlies traditional poetry, pottery, music, design and ritual. According to Richard R. Powell, Wabi Sabi ‘nurtures all that is authentic by acknowledging three simple realities: nothing lasts, nothing is finished and nothing is perfect’. This is a definitively non-Western view, grounded in Buddhist and Chinese traditions. It refuses to see the world as a set of problems to be solved.
Rather, it presents a beautiful, flowing impermanence and an accompanying sense of wistfulness and appreciation of the present moment, the right gesture, the beauty of something in nature that, although imperfect, is also already magnificently simple, effortless and ‘just so’. Wabi Sabi is simple, but not brutally minimalist like the machine-inspired modernism of some Western architecture. It favours the small, the natural and the quiet. It is humble in valuing what is found rather than made.
I am not saying that passivity and an avoidance of tackling problems – let alone their denial – is the answer. Nor that we should all turn Japanese. But perhaps we could take a broader view, that we can live with our problems in a different way, not trying to ‘crack’ them through individual intellectual genius and other egotistical magical thinking.
Carl Jung suggested that we seldom really solve our problems, we simply find a way to ‘stand higher in the valley’, so that the problems do not blot out our view and we see them in context. From that perspective it can be possible to come to a new personal myth, a different way of understanding our life which transcends what we earlier defined as a problem. Rather than providing a ready answer, this can change, replace or redefine the question.
Sometimes the problems are not real problems. Then something has to give. And when it does, a solution is obvious. Designer Victor Papanek used to delight in showing that many of the problems around us are trivial if you let go of some of the wrong-headedness. For instance, he once drove a car at full pelt into a building where a congressional hearing on road safety was taking place. He did it to show that a crash bumper made of old cans, a plank and some string could make a very adequate, instant and affordable safety feature.