The Essential Problem
By Eli Siegel
The essential problem of all people is decidedly simple and illimitedly complex. The problem is so simple it has the obviousness of just being awake, or the word the, or the idea and the word go. We look at ourselves and we see that we are; and then after looking at ourselves we find that there is something besides ourselves. And our problem, our simple problem, is to get along with what is not ourselves. We are; something else is: what shall we do about it? That is the problem of everyone, and has been since anyone existed or was anyone. We don't know how big the answer to this problem can be. No one knows how much we can get along with what is not ourselves. And just what does "get along with" mean? Besides, we have to ask what we are. Oh, yes, the problem is simple; but when it is looked at, it has a tendency to lead to places you don't expect.
There are two general ways to deal with the problem everyone has. One is to find out what is not ourselves, and the other is to forget about it. To find out what is not ourselves is the big thing in knowledge. Finding out what the world is, is the largest matter in history. Finding out what the world is has to go on in some manner once we are born. Assuming that the world we find out about does not please us, discomforts us—it can be expected that the other procedure, forgetting about it, be followed.
It is pretty clear that everyone has been disappointed with what is not himself. If he goes on finding out about what has disappointed him, it means he is still interested in what has given him pain. Certainly it isn't surprising, if a person gets pain from something, that his interest be lessened.
There isn't a clear way of getting along with what is not ourselves unless we find out about what is not ourselves. But we are pained by what is not ourselves. So our problem comes to this: how, though we are pained by the world, can we not be so disheartened that our desire to find out about it be lessened? Our problem includes the making of a just relation between knowledge and comfort.
Comfort is most often associated with ourselves intimately. It is necessary, then, to make an accurate relation between ourselves intimately and that great outside with which we have to get along. Where we don't do this, there will be trouble. Certainly accuracy is a fundamental in getting along.
The Inaccurate Solutions
To settle, therefore, this essential problem and its variations, one must see, definitely, that it exists, and that it is around as long as life is. The premature inaccurate solutions of the problem of how to get along with all that which isn't oneself are shown in ignorance, depression, ailments, and criminality.
The inaccurate solution arrived at in history is to feel that one aspect of oneself has to "get along," and that the other is immune, is away somewhere; is a separate, smooth, inward universe with its own mechanism and victories. This means that we don't give ourselves wholly to what we're alive in; that there is an unknown tremendous deleterious reluctance to see, be affected by, what we have to get along with.
Another form of the problem arises: how to deal with the likely reluctance to see that we can get along with the world about us. What happens in most persons' early lives is a kind of resignation to the belief that one can "get along" so much and no more. Most children come to feel that the world is their enemy, which they have to try to make as nice as possible. The being "nice" of the world is something happily accidental, not basic. And the feeling that when the world is nice, it's something that happens to one, not something which is of the world as such, essential, is had and has been had by living men.
Not Because the World Is Unkind
Let us assume that we could, with all of us, feel that where we did not get along with the world, it wasn't because the world is malign, conspiratorial against us, unkind, but because we didn't know enough about it and enough, therefore, about ourselves. Disappointment, then, would not lead to separation.
So it can be said, too: what every person needs to know is that when a self and what is outside the self do not get along, it is not because of what either the self or the outside world truly is, but how an incomplete self suffers through meeting an incompletely seen world; and how the suffering, incomplete self can use an incompletely seen world to say that a self within is superior to the disorderly, unjust "world." Before the self can really get along, it must believe that it can; and that it is best to do so.
In everything that man does, he is trying to get along better with the world. It is true that every time persons find out something, make something beautiful, come to a better way of government, get more order into their lives, they think, or the persons concerned do, "Well, this shows people can get along with the world. After all, isn't there this scientific discovery, this great new music, this better way of people governing themselves, this more orderly way of managing a big city? And doesn't this show the universe isn't against us? Otherwise how could we have done these good jobs?"
Nevertheless, a specific victory of man is not sufficient. Such victories have hinted, but not proved. They can be taken as accidental. The big thing to feel is that the world generally, all the time, in good weather and bad, is something we can get along with, something we can like. Because if we get along with an aspect of the world and are not sure of the rest, we can say: "This is pleasing, but it's exceptional. It has come because we have conquered the world, circumvented it, not because we are getting along with it as such."
Consequently, the simple, philosophic, universal belief that reality is something we can get along with because it is friendly, has to be had. To live is to feel that the world is good; but if we can't wholly affirm this, our desire to live and know will that much be lessened, interfered with.
The Attitude in History
Certainly, if a person doesn't clearly see that the world is good for him, in some manner he's going to be affected by the halfness of his seeing or his belief. In the same way that we can't visit a house unless we feel that the house is "on our side," so we can't go towards all that is not ourselves unless we feel that this "all" is on our side. If our general attitude is a murky one of enmity and friendliness, a darksome wavering, what we do will also be murky, wavering, unintegrated. This attitude has been the attitude of men in history.
A philosophy towards the world is the most immediate necessity. Otherwise we can't wholly believe in what we do. If we do something good in the world, and we don't see the world as friendly, we shall feel sacrificial, "unwise." If the world does something good to us, we can feel it isn't the world that pleases us—it's what we made the world do, or just our "luck." Unconsciously we won't have a clear line.
In that dialectics of the self, the most immediate requirement is the most profound requirement. What our lives need most imminently is a complete conscious and unconscious belief in life itself. Otherwise, our gratification or success of the moment will be corrupted, weakened, even spoiled by our disbelief in the source of the gratification or success. To have our moments unspoiled, we must have our lives or our centuries clear, integrated.
Not Wholly Alive
In the world, people have lived not believing in life. Life is a matter of how a person gets along with everything not that person. Should the beauty, rightness of the combination not be accepted, not only "instinctively" but as a matter of knowledge or will—that is, consciously—we are not wholly, eagerly alive.
Neurosis, unhappiness, can always be connected with the unconscious disbelief in the world as friend. Where we can't wholly affirm a belief, that much we don't wholly believe. We are all unsure of the friendliness of the universe. The nervous person cowers, plays tricks, conquers, and dismisses the world in his mind. We who may not be so nervous as to be called nervous, are not sure that the world is our friend; that we can really get along with it. Our essential, immediate problem is to have the means of doing so. If we haven't, our lives are not wholly, directly, energetically, beautifully being lived.
Copyright © 1971 by Definition Press
NOTE: "The Essential Problem," was published in The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known number 916, October 24, 1990.