The divergent problems of our time, from health care to transportation access, have no simple solutions.
In The Poised Century (Tower Press, 2011), David A. Robinson shows us what a century "on the brink" looks like and what each of us can do about it. From oil depletion and climate change to growing inequity and mounting debt, he presents persuasive reasons why each of us must live today as if tomorrow mattered. Focusing on the United States in particular, he invites and challenges his readers to find a way of living and consuming that does not diminish either the planet or its people. The following excerpt comes from chapter 4, “The New Liturgy.”
professions are conspiracies against the laity."
—George Bernard Shaw
has come to take the syringe out of the hand of the doctor, as the pen was
taken out of the hand of the scribe during the Reformation in Europe."
"One of the
principal problems in the modern world is that we have delegated our survival
instinct to the state."
Everybody loves a dead battery.
It was a do-it-yourself crowd. We stood six deep at the auto parts counter at Sears, all asking for the same thing: “Give me the biggest battery you’ve got for a Belchfire.” A cart full of dead batteries next to the counter gave witness to what had brought us there and made “Cold enough for you?” the conversation of the day.
A dead car battery, like a broken leg, is not something you wish for. But when you’ve got a problem, it’s the kind you want. We value these problems because they are clear—my car engine won’t turn over, or my leg has left me immobilized. Equal in value to their clear definition is that such problems also have clear solutions: get in line at Sears for a new battery, or call 911 and get carted to the hospital. Our problem is then quickly solved by the person behind the counter who provides a new battery or the emergency room physician who sets our leg. With a new battery our car will run again, and after a period of time to heal, so will we.
We like these kinds of problems not only because they are easy to identify and solve, but also because we need to do little more than show up and play a passive role while the problem is solved by someone else. But not all problems are so nice. Some, such as type 2 diabetes, cannot be readily solved by medical intervention but must be actively managed by the affected person. Here medical intervention fails, and the work of coping with impaired sugar metabolism belongs not only to the physician, but to the individual as well.
By looking at who needs to do the work, we can divide problems into two broad categories. E. F. Schumacher, in his book A Guide for the Perplexed, describes these as convergent and divergent problems. Convergent problems are those problems we prefer, those best solved by someone else, like a dead car battery or broken leg. More onerous are Schumacher’s divergent problems. Such problems lie beyond the work of the expert and require the work of all who are affected. The principal difference between convergent and divergent problems is that while convergent problems can be solved using the consensus-based solutions of experts, divergent problems may only be ameliorated—made better, not solved—through the cooperative work of those affected.
Most problems in technology are convergent. For example, the first commercially successful airplane, the Douglas DC-3, is an example of a convergent solution to the problem of building an airplane that could both fly and make money. Five critical design elements were required for its success: a variable-pitch propeller, a retracting landing gear, a method of lightweight construction, a radial air-cooled engine, and wing flaps. The convergence of these five technologies in the DC-3 caused commercial aviation literally to take off. The great attractiveness of solving such convergent problems comes from the creative pleasure and commercial success that issue from such technology.
But life is not always so nice. When our problems become organic and alive, they become complex and messy, and finding consensus-based solutions becomes difficult if not impossible. These complex and messy problems of life that have no simple solutions are what Schumacher calls divergent problems. For example, there is no simple consensus on what constitutes a good education. Some will say education involves authority, discipline, and obedience. Others will claim that we learn best when we are set free and allowed to test or even break the rules. When it comes to education, well-meaning and reasonable people can differ sharply on what is proper or good. In this case, the problem of education is divergent, and reaching a consensus is not possible or even desirable, since different students learn differently.
Problems, such as abortion, are difficult and divisive because well-meaning people can hold opposite points of view. My own view is that I am both pro-life and pro-choice. It is my desire that all children be wanted children and that both fathers and mothers, when presented a choice, choose life. For me, the recommendation that abortion be legal, safe, available, and rare presents enough work for the advocates of either position. While taken together these goals might not be considered an ideal solution by either pro-life or pro-choice advocates, they can, in whole, serve as a remedy. Rather than presenting a singular solution, the recommendation that abortion be legal, safe, available, and rare becomes a remedy that allows a variety of people of differing views to work toward a common goal of few or no abortions. Although such work may leave advocates on either side less than satisfied, it is likely to be the best action that can be taken for the good of all.
A large part of living is the work of discerning between the convergent and divergent problems that we encounter in life. Most important is our need to accept the reality that divergent problems, unlike convergent problems, cannot be solved, but only be made better through the application of remedies. Remedies require the cooperation of many people and lead not to the solution of the problem, but only to its amelioration. While convergent problems may be solved by the work of the expert, divergent problems can be ameliorated only by the work of those affected.
The importance of separating the problems of our lives into convergent and divergent types cannot be overstressed. Conscious evolution mandates we recognize that our future survival cannot be guaranteed by ever-more clever solutions to convergent problems. The vast majority of our most serious problems—wage equity, housing availability, health care, transportation access, unemployment, poverty, drugs, and violence, along with worldwide resource issues such as water, food, energy, sanitation, and environmental degradation—have no single or simple solution. As divergent problems, they lie beyond the convergent responses of either the technology of science or the programs of government. They require the work of everyone.
The central characteristic that makes divergent problems so onerous is that they require us to show up, pay attention, and get to work. They are the problems that we would rather have someone else solve for us. We would all rather pay our taxes and have the government feed the poor, educate our children, keep our streets safe, and provide for us ready transportation and low-cost energy. But all of these are divergent problems—problems over which reasonable people can hold widely divergent views and for which there are no single or simple answers. They are problems that deal with the complexity of life itself, and as much as we wish they would go away, they won’t. Wishing becomes the hard work of laziness as we work to avoid the reality that these problems belong to us and no one else.
The work of reducing the difficulties caused by the divergent problems that surround us today is the work of the new liturgy. The word liturgy has its origins in two Greek roots meaning “work” and “people,” and it literally means “the work of the people.” Liturgy is most often used to describe the order of worship in Christian ritual, but I now wish to extend its meaning to include all the work that life requires of us. The new liturgy describes the ordinary work that brings meaning to our daily lives. Discovering what this work is and getting on with it is fundamental to the work of conscious evolution. The new liturgy tells us that divergent problems return our work to us no matter what.
This excerpt has been reprinted with permission from The Poised Century: On Living Today as if Tomorrow Mattered, published by Tower Press, 2011.