Hard problems are interesting, That’s where you learn. Lots of things are hard problems: rural poverty in Africa, adaptation to climate change, stopping the repeal of Obamacare.
And I can get angry and upset about those problems, but they don’t make me want to curl up in a hole and hide until the world makes more sense. I want to help solve them. Or else I can see how other people are solving them, and support them, and feel hopeful. I’m not sure what the solution is, but I think there is one, and I think we can get closer to it.
But then there’s this whole other class of problems where it’s not clear a solution even exists. Not a good solution. These are the math problems I absolutely fucking hated in school, the ones where you stare at it and stare at it and you just can’t figure out where to start or what to do or where to look for the answer. (How do Israelis and Palestinians live peacefully with each other? How do my aunt and my cousin live peacefully, for that matter?) Sometimes there isn’t someone who’s completely right. Sometimes it’s all shades of grey. Sometimes there is a who’s wrong, but how do you make them see that? (How do we end white supremacy in the US? Misogyny? How do we get people to recognize that science is real and climate change is happening?) There’s too much complexity, too much hurt, too much people-being-people in the worst way, and I don’t see how to find a solution. I don’t see anyone else who has a solution. Where do you start?
I can’t get my head around these things. This is why I’m not a mathematician or a theoretical physicist or a world-changing activist (I mean, among other reasons). Some people get excited by “unsolvable” problems. I poke at them and poke at them and poke at them and then fling up my hands in frustration and go hide in a corner. I need a problem I can see the shape of, can guess at the beginnings of a solution, can find a leverage point where I can stick my crowbar.
And when people say “you have to do something,” well, no. Fundamentally, all I can do with those kinds of problems is set them aside until someone helps me figure out where to start.
And that’s not a copout, it’s not me deciding it’s not my problem, it’s recognizing that nobody can do or be all things all the time. It’s recognizing, first, that I have a really limited capability to do anything right now, and that’s not my fault. That’s my brain chemistry. And second, that figuring out what to do is not the part I can play, not at a grand strategic level. I’m better at tactics. I’m good at “what concrete thing can I do right now,” I’m good at fighting (some of) the battles, I’m not good at picking which battles to fight and how to fight them. And that’s not my fault either. There’s nothing wrong with that. Democracy is a team sport, living in the world is a group effort, we all have different strengths and weaknesses that change over time, we all have parts we can play.
This isn’t… well, I don’t know what this is. Just something I’ve been thinking about, and maybe some of you have, too.