I tend to solve problems like Sherlock Holmes. Negatively. By removing things. By denying and rejecting things. As Sherlock said he did, I eliminate all the impossibilities and am left, for whatever it may cost, with the truth. But sometimes, when you’ve eliminated all the impossibilities, there’s nothing left. The problem is simply impossible. At that moment, you can dream the impossible dream, or you can decide it’s unsolvable. I prefer, against all advice from the Norman Vincent Peale types, to decide there’s no solution. I find, when I do that, in fact, it’s an incredibly powerful problem solving tool. Immediately, upon deciding there’s no answer, a weight is lifted. There’s no need to agonize like the blind man in the dark room looking for the black cat that isn’t there. You’ve taken off the blindfold, light has filled your eyes, and there really isn’t a cat. Thinking negatively, accepting the negative, accepting the absence of hope is actually a key to the next thing.
Some of the best solutions to problems have come to me, because I decided they were impossible to solve. And I was right, they were. Now, now some of you sticklers will immediately try to point out that I merely *thought* it was impossible. Nope. Have you ever tried to turn a rusted bolt with nothing but a spaghetti noodle? It’s impossible. Don’t say “nothing is impossible”. Yes, it is. Don’t say that negative thinking will guarantee failure. Thinking you can turn a rusted bolt with a spaghetti noodle will not only guarantee failure, but believing with all your might that you can do it will leave you with a different kind of failure – bewildered dementia. Don’t be neurotic – don’t believe for the sake of believing – just let go. It’s impossible. “Because you’re using the wrong tools,” you might say. Well, duh. We didn’t say turning a rusted bolt is impossible. We said it’s impossible with the tools you have in hand. We didn’t say rusted bolts cannot be turned. We said that real problems, problems we really experience, as we really experience them, have certain parameters, certain essential characteristics – and they are sometimes truly unsolvable within those parameters and characteristics.
And that’s no light thing. Don’t go “aha!” and then proceed with the psychobabble, which is really the lingo of the neurotic who’s been given credibility by quoting books written by other neurotics who managed to earn PhDs. No, it’s huge. Telling a child slave in Thailand that if you just believe, you too can be free, is like a kick in the stomach. Telling the mother whose uninsured child is dying of leukemia that if you think positive thoughts, a solution will appear (and presumably, if it didn’t work, you didn’t think hard enough) – that’s just obscene. It’s no different than faith healing for petty witchdoctors who want your pocket change and any smokes you’ve got on you. No, sometimes there are no solutions. Accepting that is actually incredibly helpful, sometimes.
It’s only when you let go of the impossibilities of the unsolvable problem, acknowledge that it’s a catch-22, rock and hard place, conundrum, paradox, or what have you, that you are truly free to begin to reconfigure the problem altogether. And don’t get me wrong, I’m not going to sell you some Tony Robbins always-smiling pitch about how that, miraculously, will be the salve for the grieving mother. I’m not selling the schlock that if she just adopts a different mental attitude, or a new perspective, or looks at in a different light, she won’t really feel irrevocable and life-crippling grief, and that the loss of her son won’t matter. And neither should you. If you are selling that stuff, you’re a bonehead, and you need to spend a night or two sleeping under a bridge and get a clue.
What I’m saying is that sometimes some problems really are impossible, really don’t have solutions. And that accepting it sometimes, not always, but sometimes leads to a new configuration of the problem. Over the past few years, I’ve been trying to solve a pretty important problem, the results of which have really been devastating to my life. I have racked my brain. I have constantly made runs at the impossibility of it. I have attempted the impossible, knowing it was impossible, so important is this to me. None of the solutions panned out, because they never really were solutions. They were attempts to create reality, rather than accept it. Recently a pretty darned good solution came to me. I woke up one morning, the wheels of my mind having been turning all night in my sleep, as they so often do, and I knew.
It’s not the solution to the original problem. The original problem was unsolvable. It took the power of negative thinking. It took deciding there’s no answer. And in this case, as it would not with the grieving mother, the solution came as both a solution, and a reconfiguration of the problem so that it could be solved. Distinctly, though, the answer came first, the adjustment to the problem, so the answer would fit, came moments after. By rejecting positive thinking. By thinking in a decidedly negative manner – eliminating all the illusions, the faith, the wishing, the insistence that there must be a way, I paved the way for the problem to be reconfigured to meet a solution that was better.
Some would have me go back and sit in the unsolvable problem and squint, grunt, and groan until I give birth to a proof of their theory. That all things are possible, that every problem has a solution, that every question has an answer, that all things can be solved, so that all of reality fits neatly arrayed on an organized shelf, put away in time for dinner. This need to insist that the world can all be rainbows and that the fundamental human problem is not enough belief – that, to me, is a self-defeating and world-defeating argument. We have aeronautical flight precisely because it was impossible that the first aircraft could fly. We have warning labels on cigarettes, because the human body can only withstand so much abuse. Did you see Supersize Me? It’s impossible to eat at McDonalds as much as that man did without doing serious harm to your body.
The world is full of wonderful impossibilities. And it is only by accepting these that we are free to discover the fantastic potential in that which is actually supported by logic and the laws of existence. Psychologists have a word for people who see everything as possible, which is to say that anything is also plausible (it really is the same thing). Neurotic. When you believe it’s possible to jump off a roof and defy gravity, just as you believe it’s possible to make a tuna fish sandwich out of tuna and bread, you are not living in a way that’s productive, or beneficial. You’re living, if you live long at all, in a self-destructive way. The most positive thing, sometimes, is to be negative. The most productive and helpful thing is to have a healthy view of the impossible.
Once you do, you are free to find things of value in life that may be far more significant to you than either making a tuna sandwich or jumping off a building. You are free to find an incredible wealth of possible things. You are liberated from the impossible; you are liberated unto possibility. And that, my positive thinking friends, is the gift of a certain negativity. Of a certain rejection of what is not, never was, and cannot ever be. You can say I’m crushing hopes, but I say that I would prefer something more important than hope – I would prefer the thing that one would ask me to hope for. Why would I want hope, for hope’s sake? Hope, in and of itself, just for the sake of hoping, is closer to torture. The man in the room hopes to find the cat that isn’t there. The prisoner hopes for the water that is instead poured out on the floor in front of him. Hope itself, for its own sake, is no great shakes. But the finding sight instead of the cat, for the light to go on, rather than to search and hope in darkness, to be freed from the prison rather than hoping for the water, that’s real. That, in my book, is better than hope. Sometimes hope *should* be crushed. I don’t begrudge it to that mother whose son is dying, to the child being trafficked in a brutal country. But the notion that it’s somehow more important than reality, more important than the thing being hoped *for*, is an obscene thought too.
I’m not saying “it is what it is”. That’s obvious. A=A. That’s Aristotle’s Law of Identity. It means that there are a finite number of solutions to any problem, because any problem has a finite definition, a finite set of parameters which you settle on when you articulate or conceive of the problem. When you’ve exhausted them, if you haven’t solved it, it’s unsolvable. But I’m saying that, even if you missed one, even if you overlooked a possible solution, sometimes deciding that you can’t solve the problem, not within the parameters (after all, your own memory, ability, intelligence, and energy are parameters of the problem, too) – even then, it can be helpful to decide it’s impossible. Some of my best insights start with “I dunno.” Some of my best problems – the wonderfully solved kinds – come out of an unsolvable problem. And some of the answers to ones that I have solved, came from deciding they couldn’t be. All it takes is the willingness to keep one’s mind open to the impossible, while not being willing to jump. Standing on the edge of possibility, without going over into the abyss of all things being equal.
It’s easy to think an unsolvable problem is the end of the world. I prefer to be OK with it, and to deliberately keep an open mind. I might have missed something. The world and all solutions are finite, but so is my own mind – I’m fallible. Besides, I might not always need the problem solved. Another problem may come along and make it superfluous. How you’re going to afford a new orthopedic mattress with no income just doesn’t matter anymore when your house goes into foreclosure. And no, my mattress is fantastic, please do not mail me one. What I’m saying is that there’s a certain creative and intellectual freedom that comes from saying, “this can’t be done” and letting it rest at that. I find some of my most creative material comes that way. “I can’t get out of corporate life in the next 6 months. I’ve worked out all the possibilities, all the angles, and I’m stuck. It just can’t be done.” I was right about that. Absolutely right. I got out in two. Six would not have worked. But until I accepted it, and tooled up accordingly, for another year or two in the corporate sector, I didn’t come up with the path to transition almost immediately. I’m so, so very glad that I accepted the impossible. My negativity came to the rescue again.