Posted by: HAT | March 31, 2014

A Little More on Possibility

Reading and thinking

Reading and thinking

Hi, Gang!

I’ve been continuing to think about the transformative question “Why isn’t what’s possible actual?” since this question occurred to me a week or so ago on a morning drive into Louisville.

I keep reminding myself that it’s a question about what is, in fact, possible under current circumstances, what is immediately possible. It’s possible, now, whatever “it” is. That’s the condition. So, why isn’t it, whatever “it” is, actual?

It seems like a simple question, but it can go in lots of different directions. It could be the basic academic question “Why this?” It could lead a person to ask about causes, or obstacles. Why doesn’t this child, who has the skills to read, actually read? Why doesn’t this woman, who has the same credentials and the same job description as this male co-worker, and who could be making the same salary, make that same salary? Etc. etc. etc. Lots of things are apparently possible, that aren’t actual. Why aren’t they? We look for the answers in sociology, or psychology, or the effects of culture, or whatever. And as complex and multi-dimensional as those answers can become, that’s still just one way to take this question.

It’s one of the basic strategic planning questions, too, the “barriers” question. It would be possible for people to be coming to this store, or fast food restaurant, or church, or buying this cereal, or soap, or whatever. So why aren’t they? What’s keeping them from doing what they could do? Getting the answer to that question is vital, if you’re trying to market the soap or cereal, or increase sales, or memberships, or whatever.

It could go in an artistic or creative direction, too, which actually seems overwhelming to me: it’s hard to see how one would ever come to the end of the question. Maybe from a design perspective: why isn’t that refrigerator round? Why isn’t that coffee pot a little taller and thinner? Why isn’t that car a little closer to the ground, or a little farther away from it? I could imagine there might be a definitive answer to the question from time to time: because of physics, because of efficiency, because of function and fulfillment of some purpose or other. But from a decorative standpoint – why is that refrigerator black, instead of pink, or covered with flowers? Why isn’t that coffee pot ceramic, or blue, or shiny? Why isn’t that car beautiful? How would a person who asked this question this way keep from being driven insane by the infinite unactualizable concrete possibilities? I managed to entertain it in this way myself a couple of weeks ago for about 30 seconds, and then fled, mentally, from the overstimulation. Probably why I am not an artist.

Right now, however, the most interesting direction to me is the one that concerns personal behavior.

It is related to procrastination, of course: I have noticed how habitually I put things off, even simple things like throwing away a piece of trash or putting a book back on the shelf or shoes back in the closet. Why wouldn’t I stop and pick up the mail from the mail box, or bring the trash can up from the street? Indeed.

But while all of that is sadly not trivial in my life, I think the question is more provocative in its qualitative dimension. That is, as a question about the way something is taking place, the way I’m going about something. For instance: I’m washing the dishes, and I’m frowning. But I could at least be unclenching my teeth. It really would be possible for me to relax – so why don’t I? I’m in the car with my daughter, and I’m not paying any attention to her. But I could be, really, no one is forcing me to worry about what I’m going to do later today. So, why is this possibility of paying attention to my daughter escaping me? Why am I not actualizing it?

What has struck me about this question is that it leads me to recognize how many choices, really significant choices, I make all of the time. It recalls me again and again to this decisive moment of actual impact on my world, which is what I am doing here now, and how I am doing it. Because that’s another thing I notice, that I am doing whatever I am doing here now in a particular way, and any number of ways are open: I could be alert, it’s really possible; I could be paying attention. Granted that a lot is not possible, still, the quality of attentiveness is always available. As are a number of other qualities, always available, always possible ways to do whatever I’m doing at the moment – kindness, gentleness, patience, all that.

Why isn’t what’s possible actual?

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