‘When I want to send a message, I go to the post office.’
In this era of quick sound bites, where even the prime minister has less than ten seconds to explain why he or she is sending troops to war, Hemingway’s quote reminds us not everything can be packaged up neatly into a ‘message’. Imagine a politician being able to say to the media,
‘This issue is very complex, and I really don’t know what the right solution might be.’
He or she would be pilloried by the press, and yet this is how I feel about many current issues, and I’m sure I’m not alone. Novels are about asking questions, not providing answers. The characters in novels are flawed beings who struggle to get by in a world where there is no simple solution for their problems. They make mistakes, they hurt others, and yet we sympathise with them. As we become absorbed in their lives, it is easy to feel,
‘There but for the grace of God go I.’
Yet in daily life, we often forget this, and can become judgmental towards people who haven’t got it ‘together’ as wonderfully as we have. I work in a community health organisation, which focuses on supporting people who are particularly disadvantaged. As we get to know our clients, what my colleagues and I most notice about them is how incredibly resilient they are. You could fill pages with their health and other problems, yet here they are, smiling, engaged, bemused by the latest set-back but also determined to soldier on. There is nothing sentimental about the respect which people who work in this area have for their clients. It is simply a matter of knowing a little of their story, and understanding how difficult their lives have been.
When we are confronted with the problem of social disadvantage, we can either give up and try to ignore these complex, seemingly intractable problems; or we can formulate one or two simplistic solutions and promote them relentlessly. The other alternative is to become more ‘comfortable with uncertainty’, in the words of meditation teacher Pema Chodren. When we meditate, we suspend searching for solutions and are simply present with our confused emotions, thoughts, perceptions. Do we have a message for the world, once we’ve finished meditating? Hopefully not. But we probably do understand ourselves, and therefore also others, a little better.
Weekly practice idea:
Think of an issue you are confused about – it could be a political issue, or difficulties with someone in your life, or a complex social problem. Sit for ten or twenty minutes, and, instead of trying to find a solution, allow yourself to simply be present with conflicting thoughts and emotions. How does it feel, to not go straight into problem-solving mode?