Archive for August 2010

A is for Algebra

August 1, 2010

Let me begin by thanking you for continuing to read after seeing the word algebra in the title. I’m assuming that most of you do not respond to this topic with, “Oh, boy, an article on algebra.” Normally I wouldn’t read, much less write, something on algebra, but I am just off the Internet checking some credit card data and the security question that I most hate showed up, again. Yes, my “worst subject in high school” was algebra. I wish they wouldn’t rub it in. On the other hand my reaction suggests that there may be something here that needs a closer look. To start with, there’s that certain twinge that comes up in reaction to this question that I associate with exposure and shame. More reflection leads me to one of my least favorite truths: I have limits, there’s plenty I don’t know and problems I don’t know how to solve. Not exactly earth-shattering news, but I think algebra in the ninth grade drove this home in a particular way. At the time I was convinced that there was some trick that would allow me to “get” the whole thing about those two trains. You remember – the one leaving from New York and the one leaving from Chicago.
Fortunately through the years and my periodic re-encounters with algebra something has become clear and of great value to me, namely that my struggle with algebra has taught me both the fact and the necessity of “not knowing”. I hate that, even though I know that life is full of algebra problems in one form or another, and not knowing is essential for learning any new thing. We are called, pushed and driven to leave our hard-earned “knowns” in order to encounter and engage the fears and frustrations – dangers and demands that are just on the other side of whatever thresholds of knowness we cling to that make life worth living.
In hindsight I think that my problem with algebra was that I wanted to learn this “new” thing, but was unable or unwilling to let go of what I’d known up to that point and allow myself to “not know”. I kept trying to “get” algebra using my old ways. I have seen many of the people in my life and in my practice suffer from their version of that same dynamic: being confronted with the challenge of something new that called for moving beyond familiar boundaries, but trying to do it while still hanging on to some previously workable adaptation. It is the classic case of trying to fit the round peg into the square hole. Sadly, and all too often, we attempt to solve the perceived problem by using our old hammers to hit the peg harder and harder to no avail. Buried in here is the call to a fuller, richer and ultimately more satisfying life. We are confronted with our resistance to the fact of having limits, of not knowing. A kind of clinging to a rigid position that looks very much like a two-year olds, “No!”
Trusting that you are still with me – the question becomes: Why am I inflicting my algebraic angst onto you? The answer is that I’m assuming each of us suffers from what I now call an Algebra Complex of some kind. This complex is characterized by an encounter with a perceived problem that doesn’t yield to our old ways. Put simply we cling to the outworn limitations of what we “know” in order to maintain whatever we perceive safe to be. Safety is a factor, but it is not the problem. The problem is that we are living out of entrenched fears and patterns that are on automatic pilot. Self-imposed limits that may need to be reconsidered in the light of new circumstances and resources that we didn’t have available when we first constructed them. Hey, they seemed like a good idea at the time.
These outmoded limits can manifest in so many different ways. Creatively: “I don’t know” – how to draw, paint, play, write.” Clinically: “I don’t know” – how to work with trauma, addictions, dreams, couples, families, individuals. Intellectually: “I don’t know” – how to understand quantum physics, deconstruction, political theory, economics. Personally: “I don’t know” – how to be open to myself, much less another human being. We end up avoiding potential in ourselves and others. We feel shame. We get angry. Our lives are smaller than they need to be. We suffer.
Ironically we call this the “comfort zone”, and most of us are all too familiar with it. For many such patterns are our oldest and most trustworthy “friends”. As a result, we tend to only move from this zone of “knowing” if we are presented with a big enough carrot or a big enough stick. The carrot can be the possibility of being vulnerable to a new relationship with a person, an idea, a food, a geographical location, a song that makes us tap our feet – in public. The stick can be just being sick and tired of being sick and tired. It can be the “hitting bottom” of AA. It can be the pain of isolation. The point is that here is where the possibility of taking a step into the unknown presents itself. Such steps require risks, courage, some version of faith, and a lot of work. And no one can guarantee where these steps will take us or what the outcome will be.
For me such a first step is an attitude of respect for the systems we have in place. They were designed to keep us as safe as possible. In their own way they have worked – even if that safety has come at greater and greater cost – and a smaller and more fearful life.
A respectful exploring of the facets of my habitual patterns in operation allows greater and greater awareness of the contexts and the triggers that have evolved and what “algebra problems” they were created to protect me from. If you start into such a process, if you take that first step, and if you wonder how to know that you’re on the right track the answer is simple: You will experience anxiety. That’s the good news because such anxiety is basically life energy looking for a place to explore and express itself in new ways. The key is to aim that anxiety. Make it an ally.
Once you get a sense of how this works you’ll begin to find your rhythm with it. Like music, like dance and like play you’ll move forward and back; you’ll soar and you’ll skin your knees. And you’ll ask yourself over and over: Is it worth the risk, the cost, the pain? The answer will change from day to day. You’ll only know when you know, and then you’ll need to let go of that knowing in order practice more not knowing. That’s all I know – for now.