The Bootstrap Problem

A person filled with gumption doesn't sit around dissipating and stewing about things. He's at the front of the train of his own awareness, watching to see what's up the track and meeting it when it comes.
-Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

We all face hurdles in life that we must cross, some bigger than others. These challenges come in all shapes and sizes, and more often than not affect more than one person at a time. We can call these social problems, or give a lengthy description of what these problems MEAN to us, but at the end of the day, if a person is affected, they must learn to deal with the issue or find a way to cope with it.

When a person has lots of these challenges to face, we consider them "disadvantaged." It sucks to be disadvantaged, pure and simple. Those of us (myself included) who are not in that situation feel much sympathy and empathy for people whose life is spent dealing with problems such as hunger, financial struggles, racism, sexism, family tragedies, abuse, illness, and so forth. More often than not, the sensitivity felt by onlookers like myself is accompanied by a desire to help in any way possible. This desire is quickly dashed by the realization that for a person to change, they have to WANT to change, and they have to do most of the work themselves. And thus, we run into an obstacle so large many have called it insurmountable.

We are not constructed as beings that respond well to drastic change, and we are even less suited to instituting that change ourselves. I'm not talking about "change" as we consider it in politics, or the number of things a person owns, or the nature of the relationships they accumulate, but rather change in a more profound sense, as in the transcendence of socioeconomic status, or finding a way to escape abuse, or learning to recognize the intrinsic value of self and community. These things can happen, but do so rarely because of how closed our perspective is to the possibility of change.

This is what I call the "bootstrap" problem, from the antiquated phrase, to "pull yourself up by your bootstraps," which is really a great way of describing how seemingly impossible it is to move yourself with no point of reference by which to accelerate against. Try it: you cannot physically overcome the force of gravity without an additional force in the opposite direction. It's the same for personal/social problems. We are immersed in our own worlds, and it is almost impossible to change those worlds without a force pushing you in that direction.

For those disadvantaged individuals whose situation is sub-optimal (I realize this is a mild way of describing a very terrible phenomenon in our culture), there are constant forces of social, economic, and emotional oppression applied upon their lives at such constant intervals as to require perpetual attention. In order for a person to find a way out of this mess (to whatever extent that is possible), an opposing force is needed. Sometimes this is direct aid, sometimes it is social empowerment or education, but most of the time, even when presented with these options, people who experience the weight of their situation acutely and dynamically are unable to overcome it.

When we see the lack of results these efforts generally produce, we commonly react by saying the model must be tweaked, or a new perspective has to be embraced by whatever outreach program appears to be failing. Rarely do we stop and think about the personal elements of change that must be accepted before a person will let themselves change in a broader sense.

Look at the quote at the beginning of the post. This idea of being at the forefront of your own self-awareness is somewhat foreign to us as westerners. In fact, it's a decidedly Zen idea (and ideal) to be in a state of being under which all other states of being come as no surprise and are easily prioritized and interpreted. This is usually done within the meditative state common to eastern religions, but can easily be re-created in the daily routines of which we are so fond. The routine becomes the process through which you access your thoughts without distraction, and allows a mind to rise above itself in such a way that thoughts and emotions float across rather than become lodged the mind, facilitating a deeper analysis and understanding of one's inner-self.

That might seem like a very distilled, anemic version of appropriated bellybutton-worship, but what we're concerned with here is not the philosophy itself, but the process of being self-aware and open to whatever the universe holds. I am convinced that this is the secret to self-maintenance and social change. By being self-aware and open to the outside world simultaneously (note the duality), a person opens the self to the possibility of change in a way unavailable without such an understanding. Change can come from within, without outside prompting, simply because patterns of behavior are unable to silence new thoughts when a mind is observing and experiencing rather than attempting to reach some invisible "end." You are, in a sense, lifting yourself up by your bootstraps.

Anyway, that's the theory, at least.


Tyrannosaurus said...

I am wearing boots right now! But I don't see any straps on them. :(

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A blog about social change, written from Brooklyn, New York. Currently looking for contributors.