Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Living in Patterns

Wendell Berry and his "Solving for Pattern"

"Solving for Pattern," one of twenty-four essays appearing in Wendell Berry's The Gift of Good Land (North Point Press, 1982). "Solving for Pattern" is an important essay about the makeup of good solutions, and it is well worth your reading.

Berry begins by identifying two kinds of bad solutions. The first kind of bad solution brings into play the Law of Unintended Consequences. Berry states, "There is, first, the solution that causes a ramifying series of new problems, the only limiting criterion being, apparently, that the new problems should arise beyond the purview of the expertise that produced the solution." One can think of numerous examples, including me eating a half a bag of Dorito Tortilla Chips whenever I get the munchies: now chips are very efficient at relieving my munchies but they are just as efficient at raising my blood pressure, keep my cholesterol high, and make my heart doctor at UAB upset!

The second kind of bad solution invokes Positive Feedback Loops, driving the system away from stability, and making it increasingly unstable. According to Berry, "The second kind of solution is that which immediately worsens the problem it is intended to solve, causing a hellish symbiosis in which problem and solution reciprocally enlarge one another in a sequence that, so far as its own logic is concerned, is limitless." For example, war and national (and even personal) aggression of all kinds falls into this category.

Wendell Berry then gives a compelling example of a good solution (Earl F. Spencer's 250-acre dairy farm near Palatine Bridge, New York), as well as fourteen characteristics of good solutions. According to Berry, good solutions contribute to personal, communal, and ecological health, by invoking complexity in such a way that there is a cascade of healthful benefits. An example would be when I begin exercising regularly: regular exercise can lead to weight loss, lower cholesterol, improved sleep, improved cardiovascular functioning, greater energy, and it makes my heart doctor at UAB happy! Each of these "byproducts" of exercise can in turn lead to other beneficial outcomes, resulting in a mutually reinforcing web of healthful benefits.

Very often good solutions require paradigm shifts. This was true in Earl Spencer's case, where he completely reframed his farming operation. Such reframing is the centerpiece of a theory of change described by Paul Watzlawick, John Weakland, and Richard Fisch in their book, Change: Principles of Problem Formulation and Problem Resolution (Norton, 1974). In my own work, I seek to help students and patients "look at the problem with different eyes" and with a different perspective. It is reframing and more…it is 'solving for pattern' and avoiding the symbiosis in which the solution and the problem feed each other to an even greater destruction.

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