The concept of problem-solving is generally portrayed in the following manner: you have a problem, and you have a solution to that problem, and the problem vanishes. In mathematics, this may seem pretty self-evident. How hard is it, say, to find an intersection between two lines? But in the social sciences this is an incredibly problematic technique, because, for starters, it’s very hard to identify a real problem, and some of the problems that we’ve heard of so often aren’t actually problems at all.
Many intellectuals in the field of education or psychology would ask questions like: “Why are people anxious?” Well people are anxious for so many reasons! We’re generally anxious about our future decisions; we’re anxious about our money and talent, both of which are finite resources; we’re anxious over people who we like but may or may not like us back. Anxiety is so inherent in existence that any brief moment of calmness would seem totally unreal. Narcotics can enhance the secretion of serotonin and dopamine to unimaginable levels that it’s a miracle that we aren’t injecting ourselves to death. The real question, perhaps, is “how are we capable of restraint and self-discipline?”. Academics have also raised questions like “Why is there violence in the world?” With the war going on between Ukraine and Russia we might remark that we are currently living in a violent era. But that really goes to show how ignorant we our of our own anthropological history; virtually every history book can testify to how human beings are extremely violent creatures. Around a millennium ago the kingdoms of England and France fought a bloody conflict that lasted for a hundred years. And although there were much more lethal conflicts like the world wars, the frequency of violent incidents has exponentially decreased across the centuries to an extent that we should really ask ourselves “How are we capable of assembling peacefully at all?”
By now I think I’ve made my point clear. But let’s say that you did find a problem and you want to find a solution for it, how would you ensure that the solution doesn’t generate more problems or worsen the very problem it once tried to solve?
As a personal example, I’ve always felt this stuffiness in my nose when I run, and one day I figured that I ought to use some medicine so that hopefully I feel better, and if you’ve been around me before golden week you might have noticed that I’ve been using this nasal spray for a while. It turns out that this medication works by stimulating receptors and constricting the blood vessels in your nose, which is why it works instantaneously. But without proper guidance, the side effect is that you become increasingly reliant on this medication and it eventually starts to exacerbate your nasal inflammation, which is why I haven’t used it in a while.
Mental health issues closely resemble these problematic techniques mainly because our instinctive reaction to any stressful situation is to avoid the essence of the problem. Jordan Peterson, a famous Clinical psychologist had an excellent metaphor for an attempt to do otherwise. He characterized it as: “the slaying of the dragon within us.” Consider a boy who discovers a dragon in his house; since none of his family members are willing to acknowledge its existence, it begins to grow. Eventually, it fills the entire house and his family is compelled to acknowledge the existence of the dragon. When they do, it begins to shrink, and by the end of the tale, it’s kitten sized. The metaphor of the dragon could mean anything, it could be a broken relationship, an insecurity, a bureaucracy. But the underlying caveat of the story is much more specific: we should really confront the contradictions in our blind faith instead of ignoring them. What happens when you do ignore them is that contradictions begin to accumulate. For example, you might set a goal for yourself and fail to achieve it and you might ask yourself: “Why haven’t I achieved this goal?” This really isn’t the right question because the fact that you haven’t achieved it should serve as a telling indicator that your actions, (i.e. your previous solution) couldn’t solve the problem at hand. You could aim for higher test scores but spend most of your time playing games. So the real question that should be raised is: “Why are my actions misaligned with my objectives, and what can I do about it?”
This brings us to the next question, how should we properly slay the dragon within us?
Sometimes, the problem we face isn’t that we’re willfully blind to everything, but that we’re too attentive to a very vague abstraction about our current problems. In fact, we might be so attentive that we ruminate over it repetitively. If we failed to achieve an objective, we might fall into the trap of convincing ourselves that there is nothing we can do to feel better. For example, in response to being rejected, a person might react by saying “I will never find true love again.” The point is that we should consider the actual circumstances instead of resorting to broad generalizations. More succinctly, we should consider our mental health issues through a concrete and objective lens rather than an abstract and distorted one.