Problem Solving ∨ Problem Living

Problem Living

In Siddhartha, the enlightened character is a simple man who does his part: serving others. Over the last six months, I lost this message as I dove into my work. I stopped with simplicity and picked up dreaming, planning, and performing. Along the way, I placed my questions about my choices on the back burner.

A Buddha head

I committed to my studies at the University of Chicago, spending my weeks learning statistics and studying religion while juggling an internship in the Southside of Chicago. Each week, I met employees of a non-profit, Southwest Organizing Project (SWOP), and heard about the life stories that motivated their work in the notoriously poor and dangerous area of Englewood, Chicago. I attended weekly seminars in Behavioral Economics and I dedicated hours upon hours to my statistics homework, determined to understand the mathematical components in social science research. With whatever scraps I had left, I attended my Hebrew Bible lectures and my religious leadership training courses.

All the while, an unattended question burned itself into the back of my skull– Does this matter?

Questions

More specifically, does academic work meaningfully impact the world in the ways I believe it does? I know academics like to say that their work matters, that the project of academia does carry a resounding impact outside the ivory tower. Academics write about this impact in subtle and obvious ways, like through putting writing policy recommendations in their papers. Yet months of living between the non-profit world in Englewood and the academic world of UChicago, I have come to doubt the academics who claim direct relevance.

Problem Solving

I certainly see little crossover in methodology or ideology between the non-profit’s work on poverty, housing, and violence and the academic studies done on similar issues. Furthermore, it seems that the conversations that go on inside the academy about the Southside of Chicago has little to do with what is actually going on within this neighborhood. I see conversations get lost in the mythology of what people believe to be the Southside’s problems, I see people assuming– not asking– what the problems of the Southside are.

The schism here is important because the approach of asking requires a level of collaboration, honesty, and questioning. Such openness is intimidating, I believe. This way could directly challenge the results of published research and academic ideology. The former approach allows one to fantasize about a problem, it lacks any on-the-ground connection to the community’s people and their problems. The lack of questioning fails to build any connection or relationship-building; it perpetuates this mythological idealization. This process not only painting incorrect images about the Southside’s people in the minds of academics, but it also preventing real problem-solving to occur. How can you solve a problem when you don’t understand the parts?

This lacking got under my skin as the months went by, as the schism between action and words grew wider and my optimism dwindled.

An Observation

After spending months silently observing my surroundings, digesting my questions, and living in these two realities, my questions about the impact and authenticity of the academic mission broke to the surface. The loudest question gasped for breath; it demanded my attention. Since that day, I have attended to my questions, mulling them over, weighing them, and asking for opinions.  It was not until I sat in one of my last lectures of the Fall quarter for Hebrew Bible that an answer began to fester inside of me. If you will humor me in my inferences, I will tell you what I saw:

I saw my professor cheery and passionate despite a grueling quarter; I saw him as prepared for the last lecture as he was on the first day of class, eager to deliver a rich lecture on the contents of the Hebrew Bible. He knew our names, answered our questions, and committed himself to our learning in his lectures. Watching him speak, it dawned on me—my Hebrew Bible professor had it. “It” was that personalized formula that he needed to succeed in a competitive, isolating, and demanding field whilst maintaining his professional joy, purpose, and meaning. He was a researcher and a teacher, strict and kind, passionate and modest. He prioritized his relationships with his students and his colleagues above all else. He lived for his work and recognized its scope.

He did not try to solve the problems of the world, denounce forms of religious ideology, or change the religious convictions of those of us in the room. He stated his beliefs as his and left us to organize our beliefs around the information he gave us. He did not present any image of his work or himself that was beyond what it was. And what this space allowed me to do was to question my own beliefs in a silent and slow fashion; it allowed me to change every so slightly; it allowed me to want to understand a little more each day.

Realizing

While it took me 3 months to recognize, I believe now that this professor is the enlightened person that came across me in my journey. He does not burden himself with problems that are not his, he does not force what is not there, he does not impose upon others, and he does not state his opinion as though it was fact. Instead, he rows his boat swiftly, takes pride in his work, and shares with those who are willing to listen. He remains unmoved by the noise and therefore he is the one who is in touch with life.

Tying It Together

If I am to live in this world, I aspire to be like this professor—motivated by the work for the work itself, and not for any grandiose ideas of myself and my impact. I want to toil away at that which interests me because it interests me. I want to do what I want to do because I believe it is valuable. If my work happens to gain recognition and take on a life of its own, then I will accredit this to chance and not to myself. More and more, I believe that the impact of our work on this world is beyond our control. I want to focus only on what I can control. In this way, I can create meaning and discipline for myself and not burden myself with problems that are not within my ability to change.

A girl holding a seashell

In an odd conclusion, I believe that it is this approach that will help solve the problems of the world. If we focus on what we know, we can solve the problems we are equipped to solve. If we pretend to know the problems of others, we merely waste our time speaking of mythical situations and creating useless solutions. And if we want to be involved in a problem, we need to leave our egos at the door and delve into it with an open-mind, because there are people out there who know, truly know, the problem– and it probably is not us.

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