Problem, Predicament, Crisis

One of my favorite blogs to read is that of the Archdruid of the Ancient Order of Druids in America, John Michael Greer (also known as JMG), who writes over at the Archdruid Report.  He writes about the slow end of technocratic, industrial civilization, peak oil, and so forth, and though his ideas can be tough to jive with, he’s deeply insightful and a powerful writer.  He’s also an accomplished occultist (and that’s putting it very mildly), and some of my own readers are familiar with his books on geomancy.  He’s a cool dude, basically, and I highly recommend you read his blog.  I can only look forward to a day when I get to meet him and chat with him in person over a few beers!

His blog has been on my mind a lot as of late.  As some of you guys are aware, I am gainfully employed as a federal employee of the United States government.  And, as I’m sure some of you have heard, the United States Congress is facing a bit of an issue at the moment with getting their heads out of their asses and passing a budget.  If there’s no budget (appropriations bill, continuing resolution, something that authorizes and directs how governmental activities are to be funded), then there’s no means to spend money for the government; if the government can’t spend money, I can’t get paid; if I can’t get paid, I’m legally prohibited to do my work, but I’m not fired, either.  This awkward position I’d be put in is called a furlough, and it happened two years ago in 2013 when Congress, in all their infinite asshattery, shut down the government for 16 days in October.  Should the government shut down again this year, and the chances of that are increasing by the day, I’d be again put into a furlough for as long as the brazen right-wing political insurgents in Congress decide to keep us out of work, which means I may not be getting a solid income for gods-only-know-when.  To say that I’m finding more of JMG’s ideas being realized in a very intimate way (I do like getting my paycheck, after all) certainly isn’t wrong, and it’s probably more than just right.

Is this a problem?  For Congress, absolutely.  For me, not at all.  How do I mean this?  I mean, sure, we could say that everything will likely be hunky-dory for me and I’ll be fine through the furlough, but I don’t necessarily mean this.  I like to use a profound and important distinction that JMG himself pointed out a ways back on his blog about problems, because not everything is a problem if it’s an issue.  There are two kinds of issues that we face as human beings: problems and predicaments.

  • Problems are issues that can be fixed, that have solutions, that can be worked out.  The word “problem” comes from Greek, meaning a task to be done or a question to be answered.
  • Predicaments are issues that cannot be fixed and cannot be escaped, but must be lived with and worked with.  The word “predicament” literally means “something that has been asserted or stated before”, something that is essentially fated, an essential fact or situation.

For instance, it is a problem that I do not currently have a glass of wine when I want one.  I can change this situation just fine, either by waiting until I get home and getting a glass of wine then, bringing a bottle of wine with me to the office, or going out to the bar on the way home or before I catch the train.  Problems can be fixed, one way or another.  Now, to use something of a graver example, take the issue of death.  Death is a predicament, not a problem.  After all, we cannot change or “fix” dying; we cannot prevent it, nor can we avoid it.  Death is a fact of life, a necessary part of the human condition that we must learn to live with and deal with as best as we are able.  A predicament must be lived with, not fixed.

If we want to use a metaphor, consider that you’re walking east along a particular road, and you encounter a river that crosses the road.  This is a problem, because you want to continue along the road and the river is blocking your progress.  You can still, eventually, go east; you can find a ferry or a bridge to cross the river, or you can change direction temporarily until you can find a safe crossing around the river without necessarily crossing over it.  This is a problem that you can fix; you can still head east, though you may need to take a somewhat different approach than you were doing.  Now, eventually, this road leads right to the shores of the ocean; the road ends, and you can no longer go east.  Can you build a bridge to cross the ocean?  Can you ferry yourself across it on a raft?  Can you just walk around it?  No, because the ocean is the end of the road.  You simply cannot go further east on the road because there is nothing across the ocean, nor is there any more road to walk.  You’re done.  That’s it.  This is a predicament; you’re done, and need to accept this and move on with your life in a way that doesn’t paralyze you, while accepting the facts of the issues at hand.

So, really, the matter in Congress poses a predicament for me.  The matter of the government closing and putting me into furlough is a predicament, not a problem.  It’s a fact I accept, gladly so (perhaps a little too gladly, as I’ve got parties to plan for in the case of a shutdown).  I’m not able at this point to just up and pick another job, nor would I be able to escape the effects of a shutdown in my industry considering the government’s widespread influence in my field of software development and engineering.  No matter how I cut it, the government shutdown will impact me.  Although this on its own is a predicament, it causes a whole slew of other problems for me.  The big thing for me to do, really, is to decide how to work with this predicament and how to work out these problems.

It’s at this point that I’d like to introduce a third word to that classification above: crisis.  Most people use this word to refer to some hectic, chaotic, or dangerous situation that one is unable to think through, but I prefer the old Greek sense of it being a turning point in a disease, a judgment, a selection, a separation.  Crisis is the notion of a juncture, a fork in the road, where things can radically change direction from really good into really bad or from really bad into really good.  Crisis is the moment when we realize whether we have a problem or a solution on our hands; it is the moment when we realize our course of action for an issue ahead of us.  Crisis is the judgment we make when presented with either a problem or a predicament, and it is crucially important that we judge our options well so that we can manage a situation as best we can lest we bungle it and blow ourselves up.

Problems and predicaments should be handled at the appropriate time, whenever that might be: whenever you get to them, whenever your face is shoved into it by fate, whenever they’re scheduled to be handled regardless of your own state of preparation, and so forth.  Crises, however, should probably be handled as early as possible so as to make everything that follows as smooth and painless as possible; as JMG is fond of saying with regards to the slow decline of industrial civilization, “collapse now and avoid the rush”.  In my case, even though the end of the fiscal year and the first opportunity for shutdown is still half a month off and much can happen in the meantime, I’m trying to get my affairs in order ASAP so as to make any possibility that happens as quick and painless for me as I can, and to make the prospect of recovery as orderly and straightforward as it can be when things get back to “normal” (whatever that word means nowadays).  This is still well in advance of my own agency’s notice, since we haven’t been formally directed or advised yet on what to do in the case of a shutdown, and even against the expectations of many people I work with and higher-up officials and politicians who steadfastly swear against the possibility of a shutdown.  Yes, I may be putting myself through undue work now by calling my creditors and landlord and putting everyone on alert, and if no shutdown happens, I’ll have to reverse my work and tell everyone to stand down.  Still, I’d rather give everyone involved advance warning in case the worst happens instead of rushing to tell them the day of an emergency.  It only makes sense.

So, take my example as a federal employee facing a federal furlough.  Part of my work is to identify the issues I’ll be facing and to decide whether they’re problems or predicaments.  After that, I’ll need to know who else is affected because of my problems or predicaments, and let them know how they might be impacted and come to an appropriate collaboration or compromise that helps us both deal appropriately.

  • Government shutdowns are serious matters that have huge financial and economic impacts on my local area as well as the country at large.  Since a huge number of people in my area are employed by the government, if none of us are getting paid, then shopping/dining out/consuming is going to tank, which impacts businesses across the region.  Plus, all federal “nonessential” services (everything except the bare minimum required to keep my area from turning into a Mad Max zone and to get business back to normal, like federal police and congressional staffers) will be furloughed, so there’s plenty of things that people won’t be able to achieve or obtain since the services that provide them will be unavailable. Everyone is going to hurt, so the earlier we’re prepared, the better.
  • Financially speaking, I won’t be able to go to work.  While this is kinda awesome, since I get more time at home and with friends, it also means I won’t be getting paid.  The money I have going into the shutdown is pretty much the money I’ll have throughout it, so I need to spend it wisely and when needed, since there’s no telling when the shutdown would end.  However, I am eligible for unemployment, which I’d just have to pay back if I get backpay for the time I missed at work.  Additionally, I have other means of making income: ebook sales, crafting and woodworking, divination and ritual consultations, ritual work, and odd jobs with the skills I have.  Plus, I can get support from my partner as well as my other friends if needed.  There are several people who owe me money, besides, and I plan on asking them to help out if they have the means to pay me back.  All told, I have several ways to keep myself financially afloat
  • Because I won’t be getting paid, I won’t be able to pay my bills.  This impacts my credit card company, my loan agencies, my service providers, and my landlord.  I’m in the process of contacting each of them and cancelling automatic payments, deferring payments as long as possible, cutting down on extraneous services I don’t need, making partial payments to be paid fully later on, and so forth.  Some things, like cell phone or internet bills, can’t be decreased much or deferred, so I’ll have to accept those bills and pay for them as I need to.  Other things, like car loans or rent, can be put off with the agreement of the other party until I’m back on financial ground.  Yet other things, like my credit card, can be significantly lessened so that the impact is minor.
  • Know what your other resources are, since money isn’t the only thing that makes the world go round.  There are other things, like food, that are just as important.  I recall from the last shutdown that plenty of businesses and restaurants and bars offered furloughed employees free meals or drinks and other types of non-financial aid to help the sting of furlough less harsh.  I’m going through some of the old tweets and news articles from 2013 to gauge where and what those places might be, just in case I need a pick-me-up somewhere.  Essentially, this is a form of thrift and reliance on social aid, which I’m not devastated to rely on should I need to.  Besides, places that help me out are places I’ll be sure to head back to, building stronger social bonds, anyway.  It’s a healthy cycle.
  • Ask for help, and be aware that it’s a matter of generosity and not something you’re owed.  Unemployment, calling in favors, collecting on debts, and getting hand-outs from awesome bars is one thing, but there’s no shame in asking others for a favor when you’re down on your luck.  For some people, one’s parents can and probably should be the first resort; understanding friends, especially those who are close or extraordinarily trustworthy, are another group of people you should call on.  I’m not suggesting one should outright go begging, but see who can help you out.  If you prefer, barter or trade one’s stockpile of supplies or skill sets to keep yourself busy as well as satisfied, so that everything is an even deal and nobody owes anyone at the end of the day.

That’s just a very brief overview of some of the things I’ve been thinking about and acting on when it comes to this crisis.  You can see how some of these things are just facts of life that have to be lived with, like service bills that can’t be interrupted (predicaments), and how other things have workarounds or solutions or contingencies inherent to the situation (problems).  Plus, by making the most out of the situation, unexpected or serendipitous opportunities can arise that make everything else better, at least a little bit.

Now, bear in mind that all this advice is good for pretty much anyone.  But, dear reader, you’re likely not just anyone.  You’re a fucking magician.  You have the power and knowledge and skill to change shit where others can’t.  It’s times like these (and those that are far worse than these) that people turn to magic, and for those who are already familiar with it, we’re far better off than those who are new or those who are fearful of it.  While mundane acts matter most in this mundane world of ours, magic buffs it up and changes the odds in our favor behind the scenes in a way that makes things work…well, like magic.  For us, a crisis is a time when we have many more things to decide on than just who to talk to, but Who to Talk to.

Again, using my situation as an example:

  • The first thing people lose in any kind of crisis is a cool head and a clear mind, and this often leads to a real disaster instead of a mitigated vexation.  If we don’t think about things properly and thoroughly, we can make a grievous misstep in our haste and confusion.  Banish, cleanse, meditate, bathe, and purify yourself in a way that gives you the spiritual fortitude and stillness to proceed.
  • Gods or spirits of communication and persuasion can be invaluable to call on, since they can make people and stakeholders (credit companies, loan agencies, landlords, banks, etc.) far more amenable to your situation and can help work on your behalf to get what you want done instead of having you be constrained more than you already are.  Honey jars, silver-tongue charms, spells of assertiveness, and the like can be applied for similar ends.
  • This is a financial issue, so financial magic is a must.  Making offerings and requests, as one is able, to spirits of wealth and fortune is one way to go about this; Jupiter and Mercury magic for increase and circulation is another obvious choice.  Money-drawing, however, works only as well as one has a means and a medium to draw money in, so similar things such as “help me get a new side-job” or “inspire me to come up with a new craft/writing topic that I can monetize” or even “small gains through the lotto” are things to consider and apply in equal measure.  Heck, you might even want to enchant the dollar bills and coins you use in consuming things to come back to you with more money.
  • As opposed to simply asking for more money and trying to conjure a good financial situation, it’s also worthy to consider stability and restraint magic on oneself to keep one from being too affected by what’s going on.  Rituals to intentionally take away what doesn’t need to be kept can be dangerous but helpful; increased awareness of one’s budget can help you stick to it better; tweaking the forces in your life with a touch of Saturn to keep expenses away is a good method to use.
  • Pray.  Prayer helps, not just to ask for stuff, but also on its own to keep your head above the murky waters of this world.  Joy, calmness, and satisfaction are things that can be easily delivered through prayer should it be done right, and can help refocus you on things of real importance so you can let the small things slide off easier.
  • Large-scale magical operations to affect the cause of the predicament should be planned in advance, ideally with other people in concert if possible.  While the spiritual forces surrounding Congress are…less than organized, and representative of the people inside Congress, inducing a change for the better should be considered and employed.  For instance, a work to encourage Congress to act justly and give furloughed employees (especially contractors, who are worse off than those directly employed by the federal government) backpay for the time missed, would be especially good.  Works to lessen the overall economic impact of the shutdown, to speed up the resolution of a budget, to kick out the political insurgents in Congress causing this mess, and so forth are all good things to pursue, but as Dr. Frankenfurter says, this will only remove the cause, not the symptoms.
  • Divination.  Holy shit, I cannot tell you how valuable divination can be in this instance.  As Jason Miller and Gordon White agree, however, divination is only one means to learn things, and should be corroborated with other sources of information to collectively form solid intel.  Keep an ear open for gossip, rumors, and legitimate news coming down the pipeline, and use information-gathering spirits to deliver to you whatever they can find out so you can plan ahead and get an edge on whatever happens or whoever is competing against you.  If you’re in a cutthroat environment, use the reverse of that on your enemies and competition: use spells of confusion, murkiness, buzzing, and gossip to disable them while you empower yourself to get ahead.
  • Mars and the Sun, as forces of Fire, are as crucial as maintaining a clear head.  If you make one misstep due to confusion, you can screw yourself over; if you lack the energy or bravery to take up an opportunity, you can miss it entirely and regret it later.  Do not be afraid of what will happen.  You’re going to need to be brave in a sticky situation, and you’re going to need drive and judgment and fortitude and urgency in order to make the most of your problems and predicaments.  Be bold.  Empower yourself accordingly, lest you get sapped, dragged under, and depressed by everything, letting the world act on you instead of acting upon it or with it in unison.

The possibilities I can take here are as endless as the number of stars in the sky, but this should give you a good idea of what can be done with magic in a crisis.  Essentially, this is the kind of approach Jason Miller talks about in his Strategic Sorcery stuff: be strategic, damnit, and back your mundane actions up with magic, and your magic with mundane actions.  Remember, kids: a crisis can turn for the bad, but it can also turn for the good.  It’s up to you how you react to it, and it’s also up to you how to act upon it.  Do your best, because that’s the only way you can get the best.

Now, if you’ve read closely, dear reader, you’ll notice something peculiar.  While most common self-help guides and 101-level entries on strategic magic might say that you need to take control of the situation you find yourself in, I’ve never said that, and have tried to avoid implying that, either.  The whole point of a problem versus a predicament is to point out that, quite often, there are things that are simply not in our control.  We cannot control the laws of physics or thermodynamics; we cannot break the rules of mathematical possibility; we cannot puppeteer multiple people in a complicated situation according to our own personal vision of things down to the minute.  We have our limits of power, and that quite often translates into the cosmos outright telling us “no”.  Trying to take control of the cosmos when the cosmos isn’t something to be controlled amounts to one thing and one thing only: failure.  It’s a fool’s errand to try and do that, and you’ll only make things worse if you do, with a broken sense of pride and capability being the least of your worries.  No, dear reader, trying to take control of the whole thing is not something that is for us.  It may not be easy for some of us to accept that the world is not our bitch, especially with our modern notions of progress and the infallibility of mankind, but it’s necessary to realize it all the same.

Rather than trying to take control of what you can, you manage what you should.  That’s where planning, organizing, and strategizing comes into play.  Rather than trying to constrain the cosmos to follow your whim like a slave, you work with the cosmos as a co-creator and contributor.  Anyone in an office environment is aware of the difference in management styles; a group can get far more done if people’s own inhibitions and limitations are taken into account rather than a leader saying “fuck it and fuck you, get it done”.  Limitations come in the form of predicaments, and obstacles arise in the form of problems; obstacles can be removed or worked around, but limitations must be obeyed and understood.  That’s part of our job in a crisis, too, and how we react to a crisis is as important as how we act upon it.  We need to temper our will and expectations with a hefty dose of realism so we know what is feasible for us to attain given the circumstances.  Once we can see that, or at least approximate it to a good working model, then we can really get to work (and Work).

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2 thoughts on “Problem, Predicament, Crisis

  1. This is an excellent primer on workable, powerful options during a time of potential upheaval. Well written and very well timed.
    Also, John Michael Greer is one of my intellectual heroes. I love his blog and have acquired a couple of his books. I remember my own predicament toward the end of my last ‘real’ job and decided that the best way out was to accept JMG’s advice about collapsing early.

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