"THE EVERYTHING PROBLEM"
Why our biggest problems often seem unsolvable
"The Everything Problem"
Why our biggest problems often seem unsolvable.
Many of our toughest challenges are “Everything Problems.”
An Everything Problem is a problem that’s connected to, well, everything else.
They lie deep at the heart of many of our most stubborn challenges.
We face Everything Problems all the time, both as individuals and as a society.
Everything Problems can be hard to even warp our heads around, and even harder to actually solve. We tend to like our problems contained, shrink-wrapped, bite-sized, tame.
Flat tire? Fix it. Tired? Sleep. Hungry? Eat!
None of these are Everything Problems. These contained. There’s a direct, clear, linear relationship between problem and solution, A and B. These are arithmetic, basic addition and subtraction. They’re solved with one-stage thinking. They’re checkers.
But Everything Problems don’t work like that.
Everything Problems are chess. They require multiple-stage thinking. Instead of arithmetic, they’re calculus. They can go exponential, which means they can roam into some pretty weird territory. They don’t operate by way of direct, clear, linear relationships. When it comes to Everything Problems, sometimes the shortest route from A to B means going through W.
We usually try to avoid Everything Problems whenever we can.
It’s no mystery why. Solving Everything Problems isn’t just difficult. Sometimes it means rethinking everything.
And rethinking everything is hard.
We prefer Band-Aids to surgery. When Band-Aids don’t work, we usually try bigger Band-Aids. And if we really get desperate, even bigger ones.
But Band-Aid solutions don’t work on Everything Problems.
Not in the long run.
Most Band-Aid solutions don’t solve them as much as postpone them. They buy time for a while.
Solving Everything Problems require “Everything Solutions.”
But Everything Solutions take us into the deep end of the pool.
And we usually try to avoid that.
How? One of our main strategies for avoiding Everything Problems is swapping them out with problems that are easier to solve. It’s a substitution game.
So instead of wrestling alligators, we wrestle kittens.
When we go this route, we stop abandon chess problems, and start playing checkers instead. We reduce calculus problems to arithmetic. Instead of straining to think through potential unintended consequences, we assume that there will only be intended ones. We use overly simple models and solutions when more complex ones are needed.
But real Everything Solutions do exist.
So we shouldn’t have phobias of Everything Problems. Just the opposite: we should embrace them.
This all probably sounds pretty theoretical, so let’s bring things down to earth.
An example will help here.
Let’s look at an Everything Problem on a more personal level: depression.
Depression is an Everything Problem.
For just one fragment of a snapshot on the matter, an abridged story goes something like this:
Sometime around age 14, Joey changed. He began showing symptoms of depression.
His parents and teachers tried to understand what was happening. Drugs? Puberty? The music he was listening to? No answers. The took him to a medical doctor. Once again, no answers. The doctor, however, did suggest that there might be a “chemical imbalance” that a course of antidepressant medications could correct.
Finally, they took him to a psychologist. Several sessions went nowhere. But eventually, during the fourth session, Joey asked this:
“If a guy knew that one of his parents was having an affair and he knew that if he told it would wreck his parents’ marriage and then there’d be a divorce and his whole life would be ruined, but his parents are arguing all the time anyways, do you think he should just act as if he doesn’t know, even if it’s all he ever thinks about…and it’s driving him crazy?”
The above came from Hand-Me-Down Blues by Michael Yapko. After relating the above, Yapko asks a great question: “What if Joey had been pressured into taking antidepressants? How would that have even remotely addressed the legitimately burdensome issues he was wrestling with?”
Exactly. And even further, Joey would had then gotten the idea that, on top of all of the other problems (not of his own making) to wrestle with, he also had a “chemical imbalance” to worry about. Oy.
Now, let’s imagine this scenario under slightly different circumstances.
Let’s imagine that the above episode place centuries from now.
Let’s also imagine that, centuries from now, the field of psychology is much more advanced than it is now. This means that the boy would be in the hands of someone who has a genuinely profound understanding of human nature.
In this scenario, shortly after a short initial examination, our imaginary expert might say something like this:
The reason for Joey's depression is that his father is having an affair.
This might seem like strange advice. However: if his father would stop the affair, and talk to his son about it honestly, then Billy’s depression might suddenly clear up, almost magically.
This is the shortest route from A to B by way of W.
Billy’s father probably wouldn’t be a huge fan of this diagnosis (or this psychologist.) He’d probably prefer a nice prescription for a good pill to remedy the situation. Or he’d rather blame brain chemistry, genes, or any other scapegoat.
But if we’re trying to be honest about all this, well, it isn’t always pretty, or flattering.
The point here is just one illustration of how an Everything Problem like depression can’t be reduced to one single and simple cause. It’s a tangled web. It can be tempting to reduce problems down to something contained and manageable. But these paths take strange and surprising twists and turns.
In this case, we go from A to B by way of W. A is BILLY being depressed, B is BILLY not being depressed, W is the hidden, unpredictable, seemingly unrelated fact of BILLY’S father having an affair.
That said, we need some qualifiers here.
It’s easy to get pulled into the weeds with Everything Problems.
This could easily take a turn here into getting sidetracked toward an in-depth discussion about the specifics of depression.
None of this is an effort to suggest that “all depression is caused by parents having affairs,” for example. That’s the kind of reductive thinking that covers Everything Problems with Band-Aids.
The point here was just to bring up one thread from one example of an Everything Problem in order to illustrate how they work. It’s a nonlinear, multi-threaded, complex system.
But now let’s open it up a bit more, and look at a similar dynamic on a larger scale.
Let’s look at homelessness.
Homelessness is an Everything Problem.
(Again, the point here isn’t to get too far into the weeds of the homelessness problem. It can be hard to resist.)
If we start exploring the causes of homelessness, we soon find ourselves facing other difficult problems.
Mental illness, for example. Abuse. Stories of terrible luck, bad decisions, and people being treated terribly. And plenty of others.
But let’s pick just one thread in particular and focus on it: drug and alcohol addiction.
Addiction is another Everything Problem.
Addictions are connected to other very difficult problems.
We could follow multiple threads here as well.
For example: an addiction has biological factors (the biochemical and physically-felt side-effects when people start to wean themselves off certain drugs, for example). There are relationship factors. (Eg, “All of my friends and family does alcohol or drugs.”) There are psychological factors. (Eg, “Alcohol and drugs seem to provide my only moments of pleasure and relief, which is the closest I seem to get to happiness.”) There are spiritual factors. (Eg, “What I know of conventional religion makes no sense to me. And in a turn of events that isn’t completely unrelated, I see my purpose in life as trying to maximize my immediate personal pleasure.”)
Those are just four threads: the biology, relationships, psychology, and spirituality.
Some people develop addictions because “self-medicating” seems to help relieve anxiety and depression in the short-term. This means that addictions are sometimes related to anxiety and depression.
Anxiety and depression are also Everything Problems.
But let’s follow this particular thread a little further.
How does someone get off drugs?
This is a venture toward an Everything solution. Which is to say, there are plenty of answers to this, and they operate at multiple levels. Many of them reduce and oversimplify.
But one answer – written by someone struggling publicly with the issue – summed it up nicely: “We don’t recover from an addiction by not using. We recover by creating a new life where it is easier not to use.” (getsoberbitch.com)
When it comes to the nearly impossible task of summarizing the entire matter in a single short sentence, the one above isn’t bad.
So now, let’s retrace our steps. Homelessness, in some cases, can be connected to the difficult problem of addictions, which can be connected to the difficult problems of anxiety, depression and mental health, which can be connected to the difficult problems of spirituality, happiness, and meaning in life, which are best addressed, according to one perspective, by, in so many words, “creating a new life.”
We’re now up to our ears in seemingly interconnected, infinitely complex web of difficult, seemingly unsolvable problems.
This is the nature of the “Everything Problem.”
It seems that getting from A to B sometimes involves going by way of W, Z and G2. We start out by talking about depression, we end up by talking about extramarital affairs. We start out by talking about homelessness, and we end up talking about the meaning of life.
This is where we start to get into the deep end of the pool.
It’s where we start to touch on the much-ignored, much-dreaded solution of “rethinking everything.”
It’s easy to see why this can seem overwhelming.
It’s also clear why many approaches haven’t worked.
The “war on drugs.” The “war on poverty.” The “war to end all wars.”
Humanity doesn’t have a great track record when it comes to tackling our toughest problems.
This especially applies when those problems involve the complex dynamics of human nature. Many of these efforts have been more than expensive, colossal failures. In some cases, our efforts to solve problems have made things worse.
Efforts to solve these problems go to extremes.
Some oversimplify, as we mentioned earlier. “A is the cause! Therefore B is the solution!” Politicians love this route, and so do many of their fans. Many a political career has been built on the promise of simple solutions to complex problems. The idea that we would solve it all, if only we could throw enough money at the problem, for example, is a time-tested, reliable chestnut.
But at the other end of the spectrum is endless complexity.
Specialists these days are overly specialized. They’re busy measuring millimeters while the rest of the world is in a different county. Some spend decades studying the fine points of some situation or other in great depth, and end with “further research is needed.” At some point in the process, they often lose the ability to communicate with the rest of the world. They also scoff at what they see as grand, sweeping, naïve solutions, proposed by naïve outsiders, and focus instead on the more immediate details of the smaller puzzle in front of them. They often say, in so many words, “it’s not my job to look at the big picture. My job is just to play a small role in the small picture.”
In between these two – the overly simplistic and the overly complex – Everything Problems live on, and thrive.
This is why we seem to need a different approach.
So, what is this different approach?
An approach to solving Everything Solutions might be defined most easily by describing what it isn’t.
One part of solving an Everything Problem involves recognizing that it isn’t a “Fragment Problem.”
A flat tire is a Fragment Problem.
Fix the tire. Problem solved.
A Fragment Problem is a flaw in a single component of a larger system. In this example, a tire is a component of a car. A problem with a larger system (a car) is one of the components (a flat tire.) Fix the component, and the larger system starts working again.
Reductionism works well on Fragment Problems.
The reductionism approach works by starting with something big and breaking it into smaller pieces. The pieces are analyzed and understood separately. The basic idea is that fixing one of the smaller pieces results in a fix of the bigger system. The flat tire is an example where reductionism works.
The thinking here is that smaller pieces are contained, and manageable. Large, sprawling systems aren’t contained, and aren’t manageable. Focus on the simple component elements, then, and the bigger picture will take care of itself.
One premise of this approach is that the smaller components underlie and govern the bigger system. Causation travels upward, from the smaller to the greater. Therefore, the reductionism approach to Everything Problems focuses on those components.
This seems to be the approach that we’ve been trying on lots of Everything Problems for quite a while now.
There’s only one problem.
It doesn’t really work.
At least in some cases.
The problem isn’t reductionism itself. In many situations, it’s incredibly effective: physics, chemistry, various branches of medicine and scores of others testify to that.
But like many other good ideas, the very effectiveness of an approach leads directly to painful lessons in discovering its limits.
It typically works like this: a new approach is discovered, and it works well. And if it works well here, it must work well there, and there, and over there as well. Eventually, it’s applied nearly everywhere. It becomes so overused and overly-applied that it eventually backfires.
We could say that reductionism is like beer. Beer is great. But when it becomes the answer to all of life’s problems, suddenly beer becomes not so great. The problem isn’t beer itself, it’s our overuse of it. In the same way, when reductionism becomes the only acceptable approach anywhere – the only player that gets any respect – it’s time for a correction.
When reductionism becomes the only game in town, we become Big-Picture Blind.
This also happens when looking for the “ultimate causes” of things.
Reductionism assumes an upward causation. According to this approach, the “lesser” determines the “greater.” Electrons affect atoms. Atoms then affect molecules. Molecules determine elements, which then affect chemicals, which then affect organs and living tissue, and so on up the chain.
Eventually, this kind of thinking leads to the idea that brain chemistry “causes” all human behavior. It’s a perspective – a philosophical worldview – that some treat as dogma. The idea that atoms govern the behavior of a penguin probably sounds absurd to most of us. When we want to understand the behavior of penguins, we don’t consult physicists.
Yet “category confusion” or a blurring between levels is almost the norm. Efforts to explain (reduce) all human behavior with single-cause answers like “brain chemistry” or “genes” are pervasive. Reductionism and category errors are often like hidden rules in a dysfunctional family that are presumed, invisible, unquestioned, and taboo to even talk about.
Yet the logic doesn’t hold.
A university is often composed of buildings, and buildings are often composed of bricks. But there’s nothing inherent in a certain brick that makes one a “university brick” and another a “prison” or “restaurant” brick. They’re just bricks. How they’re used – their function and purpose within a larger system – gets determined at another – higher – level.
There’s another parallel in diagnosing a patient suffering from various medical symptoms. A reductionistic approach works by isolating each symptom and treating each separately. In the extreme, this would mean first treating fatigue, then tackling nausea, and after that, treating weight gain. A different pill for each symptom wouldn’t be unheard of. The idea of far-fetched, Grand Universal Theories of Everything sometimes get sneered at. Yet a search for some kind of far-fetched, mysterious, all-encompassing, “unifying dynamic that underlies all of the symptoms” might eventually be found. For example, in this case, it could mean discovering that the patient is pregnant.
All to say, in certain situations such as these, the pill-for-every-symptom approach can become highly problematic.
An alternative approach, though, reverses this.
It’s an approach that embraces Everything Problems.
This approach is fully open to Big-Picture thinking.
This is a stark contrast to what often happens.
Big Picture thinking seems to have been unfashionable in certain influential circles for quite a while now.
In academic philosophy, from Hume and Kant through Wittgenstein and Rorty, “The Big Questions” have often been reduced and dismissed as either unknowable, nonsensical, or even (somehow) uninteresting. It became trendy at certain points to depict the Big Questions as a kind of fuzzy-minded carnival of intellectual cotton candy. The tough thinkers, the ones with the stomach to face the harsh realities of real life, were the ones who they went all-reductionist, all the time. That was the idea, anyway. Philosophers, in this scenario, were reduced to being the mop-up crew for scientists.
But this approach eventually leads to Big-Picture Blindness. It means focusing only on the details and missing the larger whole. It sees trees, in infinite complexity and detail, but no forest. And when it becomes dogmatic, it means insisting that there is no such thing as a forest, only trees. Everything gets defined exclusively by its physically smaller component parts. Eventually, by this thinking, everything and everybody gets reduced to quarks (or whatever might be smaller than quarks.) It reduces everything to a level of meaningless noise, and then claims that everything is “really” meaningless.
Big-Picture thinking is the opposite of reductionism.
It reverses the direction of the entire dynamic.
There are “the parts” and “the whole.”
With reductionism, the parts determine the whole. A car, for example, is “nothing but” a steering wheel, an engine, two axles, and so on. Consciousness is “nothing but” brain chemistry. A university is “nothing but” a series of bricks.
Causation, in this approach, is solely upward.
Brain chemicals “cause” emotions, for example. Genes “cause” human traits and behavior. Brains – the gray, wrinkled, physical organs housed in our skulls – “cause” minds. That’s the perspective that often gets assumed, based on the worldview of the person doing the assuming.
But in Everything Problems, it’s the reverse.
Causation can also go downward.
Or more accurately, causality can flow in both directions. The whole can also determine the parts.
In art or design projects, the concept determines the execution, and the execution embodies the concept. To just “start executing” (or working) would be to merely try stuff blindly. To just sit around and come up with wonderful ideas would mean to never actually produce anything.
Both dynamics need each other.
A problem with the whole could mean that all of the individual parts could be working perfectly, yet things would still fail.
In order to understand the parts, you have to understand the whole.
This might be getting a bit abstract again, so let’s bring it down to earth.
This can be illustrated well with stories.
We can look at movies.
In movies, there’s the concept (“Big Picture,” the premise, or the basic idea of the story) and the execution (plot, dialogue, cinematography, and so on.)
If the concept is flawed, the execution could be perfect, but the story still wouldn’t work.
We can easily imagine a Hollywood executive saying this: “Let’s make The Godfather. But let’s remove all violence, and power plays.” “Let’s make Lord of the Rings, but let’s take out all of the elements of fantasy.” “Greenlight to Jurassic Park! But let’s get rid of the ‘dinosaurs’ part.” “We can make a James Bond movie, but let’s remove the a few parts: action, fights, and looking cool.”
Of course, the sane reaction to this is typically, “but that’s the whole point.” Without that, none of it works. It doesn’t matter how good the cinematography, dialogue, acting and so on are. Without this certain essential element, the whole thing basically falls apart.
Fixing those “essential elements,” then, means engaging with The Big Questions.
This might lead us to a strange point.
In order to understand anything, we have to understand everything.
The sentence above might be clarifying.
It also might seem paralyzing.
(That mirrors how Everything Problems – and Big Questions – can sometimes affect us differently.)
If the sentence is true, after all, it can seem to make everything seem impossible.
After all, it seems pretty self-evident that we don’t understand everything. And if we can’t understand anything until we understand everything, well, then we’re never going to understand anything. So that leaves us understanding nothing. And then there’s no hope of ever understanding anything.
But luckily, we don’t have to get stuck in this existential Chinese finger-puzzle. There’s more to the picture here, including an ingredient that might help us overcome Everything Problems.
Another example might help here.
Imagine a young man wants to ask a young woman out on a date.
In the grand scheme of things, this might seem like a relatively simple problem.
But if he wants to really understand the challenge he’s up against, and do well at it, the matter isn’t so simple.
After all, the young man would have to know how to talk to young women. To do this, he might have to learn to summon his courage and overcome his fears. He’d ideally understand some of the conventions of dating – where to go, what to do and not do – and be able to perform them. (Many of these are unspoken, unwritten, and assumed. If he’s lucky, he picks this up organically through growing up in a healthy culture, also known as an “oral tradition.”
And if we’re really being thorough, he would need to understand a great deal about the young woman – why she might say yes or no, for example, what her expectations might be, what she might be wanting to get out of the encounter.
This brings us to the purpose of dating itself. Why date, after all? What’s the point of it? What do each of them want to get out of it, and why?
This easily leads us to needing to understand not just such things as cultural norms on marriage and sexuality, but human nature, why we do what we do, and eventually, “the point of it all,” or the meaning of life itself.
So in a way, in order to simply ask a girl out on a date, he needs to understand the meaning of life.
And in order to understand the meaning of life, he needs to understand the heights and depths of God, and the universe, and the whole darn enchilada.
At this point, we might seem to arrive once again at overwhelming paralysis.
This leads us to a point where it’s not just our most difficult challenges that are Everything Problems.
In some ways, even our easy problems are Everything Problems.
And yet again, thinking about it this way might threaten to bring life to a halt. After all, if we need to understand everything in order to understand anything, then so long as we don’t understand everything, we won’t understand anything.
And that can make navigating through life – which demands real, concrete, hard decisions – seem overwhelmingly difficult.
Yet problems can be solved.
Simple problems can be solved.
Everything Problems can be solved, too.
The above analysis might seem far-fetched, impossible, and accurate. After all, lots of things truly are connected. And in order to solve certain problems, we truly do need to solve others.
Somehow, despite all this, young men manage to ask young women out all the time. While it’s hard to get a job without experience, and yet hard to get experience without a job, people wind up getting jobs all the time. Nature usually finds a way.
And they don’t need to become enlightened Buddhas to do it. Most often, they throw together some rough-draft, quick-sketch, on-the-fly answers to the Big Questions. The answers are “good enough” to get through the task at hand. That helps us manage to get through life, despite not knowing everything.
And luckily, much of the kind of computing and processing takes place unconsciously. This helps keep us sane.
If almost every problem is an Everything Problem, and if we solve small problems on a small scale all the time, then we should be able to solve Everything Problems as well. It might not be pretty, and it might take some continual refinement, but it works.
In fact, in some ways, it’s already working.
We approximate answers to the Big Picture. Call it “intuition” when it’s unconscious or a “life philosophy” when it is conscious. One way or another, we seem to have a sense of the whole even as we move through the parts.
And this is good news.
That Everything Problems can be solved is good news.
And it’s probably not really “news.” People kick additions all the time without necessarily solving the mysteries of the universe. Certain individuals get out of homelessness. Certain individuals overcome depression, meaninglessness, and other conditions. And so on.
Sometimes these problems get overcome in a way that’s systematic and deliberate. Other times it happens by “muddling through.”
Humans are great at “muddling through” stuff. It’s messy, and rough at times, and much of it is done while groping blindly through a fog of uncertainty. But sometimes, it works, eventually.
We all have at least a “muddled” idea of the “whole” of things.
Kant described how we don’t simply live as if life is one frame of film at a time. Our sense perceptions don’t exist in isolation, as isolated snapshots hanging on a wall in our mind. We form narratives. We tell stories. We link things together.
All stories convey some sense of The Big Picture. However vague it might be, there’s a rough draft of the who, what, when where, and why that we all carry around.
We all carry around some rough draft of The Big Picture in our heads.
This “rough draft of The Big Picture” might be like seeing a low-resolution image at first. A low-res image first shows up on a computer screen as blurry and pixelated. As the resolution improves, it becomes sharper, and less blurry. With each increasing render pass, it becomes clearer and more detailed. And if we hang around long enough, and keep rendering, eventually, the entire picture becomes clear.
This is how we’re able to work both sides of the equation, and attack Everything Problems from both ends. We can use reductionism when possible, but then, when appropriate, we can set that aside and also use a Big-Picture approach when we need to. We have both tools in our tool belts – The Way Up and The Way Down- and we can use both, simultaneously.
This is the area where “The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” Yet we also begin with some idea of the ultimate destination in mind, however vague. We don’t need a crystal-clear image of what everything looks like a thousand miles from here. A blurry hunch that it’s worth the trip might be enough.
There’s both the distant and the immediate. There’s bottom-up, and top-down. Both have value. And both, it seems, are necessary.
The trouble kicks in when we cling to one approach only.
When we confront certain problems, we seem to approach them in predictable ways. First we go all the way to the left. If that doesn’t work, we go all the way to the right. If that doesn’t work, we try some kind of compromise, halfway between the two. If that doesn’t work, we try rejecting both sides. If that doesn’t work, if we hang in there and don’t abandon it, we can sometimes find some kind of resolution that encompasses the best of all sides.
Again, the bottom-up, science-based, empirically-studied approach often saturates our thinking these days – sometimes with good reason. Yet an exclusive emphasis on this approach, while rejecting all else, has limits. It can lead to a lopsided, unbalanced, one-armed-one-legged approach. It can lead to using a hammer to drive in screws, and using a screwdriver to try to drive nails.
Restricting ourselves to reductionism and mere learning-from-experiments alone tasks us with solving problems of calculus armed only with the tools of arithmetic. Or it tries to solve arithmetic problems with calculus. It can make complex problem overly simple, or simple problems overly complex.
Either way, it uses the wrong tools for the job.
We need at least two different tools for this job.
“Analysis” is the approach of reductionism.
Analysis works through the intellect. The intellect works by breaking wholes down into smaller component units.
The opposite approach is “synthesis.”
Synthesis starts with separate pieces and sees them as aspects of greater whole.
Instead of breaking them into smaller components, it takes smaller components and gives them a greater context. Instead of the intellect (which uses analysis), synthesis works by “intuition.” (Some might prefer a different word, like “imagination,” “symbol” or “meaning-making” (eg Becker), or perhaps more simply, “common sense.” (Einstein, for example, might have been in favor of imagination: “Imagination is more important than knowledge.” But that word seems likely to give the wrong impression, ala, life-by-McDisney.))
This approach – intuition, imagination, and so on – sometimes gets a bad rap in being associated with fairies, unicorns, and non-existent (“imaginary”) realities, and so on.
But there’s nothing anti-reality about this at all.
This doesn’t mean venturing into the “imaginary” or “psychic” or anything else any hard-nosed tough thinker would scoff at. It’s systems thinking. It’s seeing “things” as “holons” – simultaneous whole-and-parts. It’s what most of us see as “common sense.” It’s what comes naturally to us, unless we become obsessed with worshipping only the intellect.
For example: instead of mere clumps of cells, common sense sees various organs: the heart, liver, kidneys, etc. And we don’t merely see various individual organs, we see a greater, unified system – a physical body. In a body, these various “individual” organs work together, and each component plays a unique role. And we can keep going: in the course of real life, we don’t merely interact with a physical body, but someone with a mind, a heart – in other words, a “person.” And so on.
It takes an act of intuition (or imagination, common sense, etc), in some ways, to see a group of bricks as a whole new thing called a “building.” It takes intuition to see a group of bricks as a whole new thing called a “campus,” and not just a campus, but a “university.” And so on.
A certain portion of modern education is oriented almost exclusively toward the intellect. It consists in breaking things down into facts, and then doing a dump of mostly meaningless facts into young brains. It’s what happens when everything gets reduced to mere information. History, for example, is often taught as meaningless piles of facts – this event, then that event, this date, that date. None of it seems to matter to anything remotely resembling real life. It’s just a jumble of facts without a point, aside from a grade, which gets a diploma, which gets a job, which gets money, which is ultimately, the point, it seems. Which is often pointless. The greater story that actually makes sense of it all has often been lost, gone missing, or was never really known all that well to start with.
But we can upgrade that approach.
This would lead to more Big-Picture thinking.
“Big-Picture thinking” means asking “The Big Questions”: What’s it all about? Where did it all come from? Where is it all going? How? Why? What’s the point? What the heck is going on?
These aren’t abstract conundrums, but core questions that lie at the foundations of our own lives. Where did we come from? Where are we going? How should we live? Why? What’s the point? What the heck is going on?
The phobia of Big Questions over the past century or so led to this approach seemingly being voted out of the Cool Kid’s Club for a while. It meant abandoning our old, trusted, but less flashy friend in order to get in with the flashy, popular jerks. But the limits of this approach are hopefully becoming more clear. Our inability to solve Everything Problems testifies to a need for a new approach.
Embracing The Big Questions can help us solve Everything Problems.
Some problems can’t be solved, only prevented. But truly preventing problems means, in a way, solving a problem that hasn’t even been born yet. It means focusing on the context or the environment where the problem has come about.
Addressing Everything Problems can work in the same way.
The key in this is spotting all of the various hidden connections between issues. It means understanding the tangled, interconnected web of things, instead of trying to simply tug on one strand and leave the rest completely untouched. As John Muir said, “When one tugs at a single thing in nature, he finds it attached to the rest of the world.”
These hidden interconnections are sometimes invisible.
A connection between homelessness and “the meaning of life,” for example, isn’t obvious.
But just to pick up one thread we’ve already traced: one aspect of homelessness, among many others, is connected to addictions. Some aspects of addictions can be connected to psychological conditions like anxiety and depression, which prompt some to look for relief in the first place. Anxiety and depression can sometimes be connected to things like intimate relationships (dysfunctional or not), happiness, and meaning in life.
“Meaning in life,” in the way it’s meant here, is street-level practical. It’s the “why?” and the “what’s the point?” It has to do with the “why get out of bed in the morning?” question. When there isn’t a clear and compelling reason to get out of bed in the morning, sometimes it can be hard to.
In this sense, “the meaning of life” isn’t the abstract philosophical armchair bull session that many make it out to be, full of hot air, pontifications and puffery.
“The meaning problem” can take the form of a struggling alcoholic, sitting at a bar, trying to decide whether or not to take a drink. A person’s answer here is not an abstract question. It’s a critical part of the person either standing up at the bar and walking away, or not.
The search for a reason to get out of bed isn’t a matter of academic philosophy.
To some, these issues are matters of life and death. It’s not a matter of toothless armchair philosophy. This dimension seems to be lost at times on certain hyperintellectual academics who seem to enjoy befuddling each other with inconsequential mind-puzzles. The urgency of the matter sometimes seems to vanish in the comfy corridors of academia. It leads to intellectually fiddling while the world burns.
To retrace full the chain of logic, though, means retracing a thread that connects homelessness to the meaning of life.
This also isn’t the only thread that does that.
Almost all Everything Problems eventually lead in this same general direction.
“All roads lead to Rome.”
Nearly all Everything Problems lead to The Big Questions of life.
The thread linking addiction to the meaning of life seem fairly straightforward. If life seems miserable, meaningless, or even just boring, and heroin makes you feel incredible, then it’s no mystery why anyone does heroin.
Kicking heroin, then, in at least one respect, would eventually involve figuring out a way to see life as something more than miserable or meaningless without heroin. It would mean finding a better answer to the meaning of life that didn’t involve shooting up.
It could be the case that when it comes to many critical problems, then, all roads lead to The Big Questions of life.
The Big Questions are the mother lode of Everything Problems.
They are Rome.
So, all roads lead to “The Big Questions.”
Let’s now revisit our definition: an “Everything Problem” is a difficult problem that’s deeply interconnected with other difficult problems, all of which are also deeply interconnected with “The Big Questions” of life.
This is how Everything Problems lead us to the deep end of the pool.
To pick up an earlier thread: we left off at the “why get out of bed?” question, or the question of the meaning of life.
The question of “meaning” in life connects to the question of whether there’s really a God or not.
The trails, then, eventually lead to core questions of religion and spirituality.
This isn’t surprising. After all, spiritual traditions had been the source of answers to The Big Questions for thousands of years. That’s been the case up until the past few centuries, when “The Death of God” started kicking into high gear.
Of course, many people these days have been turned off when it comes to areas of religion and spirituality. This is unsurprising. All too often, their bad reputations have been well-earned.
But we have to follow the trail where it leads. And if it truly leads to The Big Questions which then leads us to core issues of spirituality, that must be where the heart of the matter lies.
But there’s a twist.
Everything Problems happen in simple situations as well.
Everything Problems aren’t reserved just for complex, sprawling issues like homelessness and depression. They’re woven into our seemingly simple, everyday thinking as well.
Let’s imagine a scenario that seems relatively straightforward: a boy asking a girl out on a date.
If a boy was truly going to think it through, and genuinely wanted to understand what went into this problem of asking a girl out on a date, he’d soon find himself facing a steep climb.
He’ll need to know how to talk, first of all. That would usually have to be assumed. He’ll also need to be able to talk to girls. This means he’ll likely need to know something about how to overcome his own fears. He’ll need to have some kind of plan for what to do if she actually accepts the invitation (going out to dinner, for example), and the ability to follow through on that plan (the ability to pay for the movie.)
If he was really going to be thorough, though, he’d also need to understand why she might accept his offer, or why she might decline. This means having some grasp of the endgame involved. Is the ultimate aim to fall in love, get married, have kids, and grow old together? Is it to just get some kicks for an evening? What is the ultimate objective for dating, after all? Is it about lifelong relationship commitments, or a night of fun? This raises the question: should life itself be about lifelong commitments, or just enjoying the moment? Is life about just enjoying yourself in the moment – hedonism – or is there something bigger going on? When it comes to dating, in other words, what is the ultimate aim in life – for him and for her?
For some, this kind of thinking might seem both paralyzing and insanity-inducing.
But it demonstrates how The Big Questions are woven into the fabric of our everyday lives.
The main question is only how aware we are of them.
This might seem to lead to some absurd territory.
So, is this approach suggesting that the solution for homelessness to sit around naval-gazing and pondering the meaning of life?
Is slogging through The Collected Works of Plato the answer to street-pavement-level problems such as depression, homelessness, and addiction?
But a coherent and systematic approach to difficult problems leads us to Everything Problems, and Everything Problems lead us to The Big Questions.
And The Big Questions leads us to what spiritual and philosophical traditions have been working on, steadily and deliberately, for thousands of years. Through ups and downs, successes and failures, they have been on the front lines of our efforts to make progress on these fronts.
This doesn’t point to simply rewinding the clock. Rather, it leads to potentially connecting up two different oceans of research that, up to this point, don’t seem to be connected at all. It means launching a construction project on some sort of intellectual Panama Canal. (Or, "Inner Work.")
For thousands of years, philosophical and spiritual traditions have been on the front lines of The Big Questions. When it comes to the meaning of life, the point of it all, how to act (or not) and why, how to think and reason and so on – these are not null questions, or anything worthy of phobias. It’s actually well-traveled territory in some ways. Those who travel this territory, though, sometimes don’t seem to do much mixing with those who don’t.
If we draw from the best of both, however, we might find that each has a great deal to offer the other.
If handled properly, this might lead to new frontiers of innovative solutions to some of our toughest problems.
So we should embrace Big-Picture thinking.
We should start asking Big Questions again.
And we can employ a rigorous, no-nonsense review of the spiritual and philosophical traditions from the past few thousands of years to help us. No need to reinvent the wheel.
After all, if there really is a “revaluation” of tradition happening today – a “revaluation of all values” in Nietzsche’s words – and if that’s underlying a disintegration of much of our experience of modern life for the worse – maybe we can harness that, use the force of that against itself, and redirect it for the better.
If we pursue that in a way that uses the best of the intellect and the intuition, head and heart, theory and common sense, perhaps we can embark on a serious review of the past several thousand years, get clear on what has worked and what hasn’t, and put it to work on some of our toughest problems.
This might seem like common sense.
And in a way, it is. Seeing the Big Picture can help us solve Smaller Pictures. We shouldn’t give up on trying to see The Big Picture. Asking Big Questions, and searching for legitimate answers, isn’t fruitless or futile. It’s vital. And necessary. It seems that some problems can’t be solved without it.
Much more can be said on all this, including more on how this can apply to specific problems we face, both as individuals and as a society.
We can’t say it all here. But it’s a start.
We can make progress slowly, practically, one step at a time.
But we can aim for everything.
“To put the world in order,
we must first put the nation in order;
to put the nation in order, we must first put the family in order;
to put the family in order, we must first cultivate our personal life;
we must first set our hearts right.”