Monthly Archives: May 2014

Wicked Problems at the Movies I



May 14, 2014

At the center of all literature, theatre, cinema, and much of the graphic arts, can be found one or more intractable, complex, unmanageable “wicked” problems for which the characters in the play or the novel are neither ready nor prepared.  Their problems often appear suddenly, with little warning, overturning, even destroying, the stable, comfortable, and predictable structures of life that the protagonists have come to depend upon for their happiness and well-being:  family, marriage, career, reputation, financial security, health, safety, and so on.   Tragedy does this tragically; comedy does it with a few laughs.  But tragically or humorously,  the known world is overturned, and they are faced with unknown, and in some cases, unimagined challenges.

In this new, strange, and often hostile world, the central characters in the novel or movie must act.  And in the words of Wendell Berry that I quoted in an earlier post, they must “act in ignorance.”

As we watch or read, we follow the characters from a distance as they respond to the challenges given to them by the author:  the choices they make, and why they make them; their mistakes and missteps and what they do in order to regain their footing;  their early, feeble attempts to make things right, and how they learn from them.

In addition to being entertained, we are offered an opportunity to learn vicariously.  They struggle, and by watching, we learn about struggling.  We see them descend down into the abyss, and we watch them make efforts to get out.  Without  descending  into the abyss ourselves, we gain understanding of the pain and suffering that is involved.  As we watch them struggle to redeem themselves and their loved ones, we can gain an advantage.  Perhaps most importantly,  we see in dramatic terms what we already know but often forget:  actions have consequences.  If we are lucky, we are reminded of this without having to suffer the  heartbreak and loss that accompany unwise and destructive choices.

The Descendants

The Descendants is an award winning movie from 2011, directed by Alexander Payne and starring George Clooney.  I have selected it as the first of occasional entries to this website in order to review and discuss movies, novels and plays that illuminate a profound human experience:  finding oneself caught up in the middle of a  wicked problem, and then struggling to make the best of it.  The Descendants is an unusually rich and powerful experience for moviegoers as they accompany the actors down into the depths of wicked problems, and then travel back with them as they struggle to put their lives back together.

(Reader alert:  This is a film about a dysfunctional family passing through life-changing crisis.  It is an intense and in some ways an unsettling movie. It chronicles the travails of  a father and his two daughters  struggling to come to terms with the death of his wife and their mother.  While at times painful to watch, at the end there is an affirmation of hope and love.  It is rated R  for language typically used by many teenagers,  including the F-word.)

The Story

Matt King (George Clooney) is a middle-aged successful lawyer in Hawaii.  He is the sole trustee of a family trust that controls 25,000 acres of pristine land on the coast of Kauai, land  that he and his cousins inherited from their ancestors.  The property is extremely valuable; and, since it is one of the last undeveloped tracts of land on the Islands, it also has great cultural importance for the native people of Hawaii.   At the beginning of the film, King, representing  his cousins, is in the middle of negotiations to sell the property to a developer.  Suddenly, with no warning, he receives word that his wife, Elizabeth has suffered a serious boating accident which, as he learns later, leaves her in a comatose state from which she will never recover.  Matt and Elizabeth are parents of two daughters, Scottie, 10, and Alexandra, 17, who is away at boarding school.  King must now put aside his business interests and pay attention to his family, providing support to his children whom he hardly knows.

Wicked Problems in The Descendants  


King, as sole trustee, must make the decision to either sell the 25,000 acres to the developer or find a way to preserve it.  Selling  is what most of  the family wants to do – his cousins need the money – and the arrangements are almost complete.  On the other hand,  preserving it, something that most people in Hawaii are hoping for, is, for legal and family reasons, extremely complicated.


-  Matt and Elizabeth have drifted apart.  Matt has found refuge in his work while Elizabeth has  become deeply involved with extreme sports.  After the accident, Matt realizes that his marriage to Elizabeth is important to him and he would like to begin again, but now it is too late.

- Elizabeth has a living will which instructs her doctors that in the case of a comatose state with no hope for recovery, her life must not be prolonged.  Matt is left with the decision as to when and how to end her life by removing her from life support.

-  When Matt tells his Alexandra that her mother will not recover, she tells him that the tensions between her and her mother during the past months arose when she learned that her mother was having an affair and wanted to divorce Matt.


- Matt now has full responsibility for the children and he has no idea how to go about being a father to them.  ”The last time I had responsibility for Scottie,” he says, “she was three.  Now she is eleven, and I have no idea what to do with her.  I’m the back-up parent, the understudy.”

- Matt faces the ordeal of telling his daughters that their mother will never recover and must be removed from the ventilator.  He struggles with how and when he should tell them. 

- As the daughters try to come to terms with the knowledge that their mother is going to die, they begin to act out their feelings by disobeying, swearing, drinking, being abusive to friends, and so on.  Matt is at a loss to know how to discipline them, let alone help them deal with their feelings.

-  After Elizabeth’s death, Matt is uncertain how to go about recreating a sense of family. 

Extended Family and Friends:

- Matt’s decision about the sale of the property causes great consternation and anger among his cousins.  They threaten to sue, which leaves Matt to decide how to manage this threat.

-  Elizabeth’s parents blame Matt for every problem:  her accident, the unruly behavior of the children, and their deteriorating marriage.  ”She was a good and faithful wife,” Elizabeth’s father says, “She deserved better.”  Matt wants to tell him the truth about Elizabeth’s betrayal but senses that it will just cause more resentment.

- Matt and Elizabeth’s best friends had known about Elizabeth’s affair.  When Matt learns that they had known, he is furious and breaks off the friendship at the very moment that he needs their love and support.

The Children:

- Neither of the children had a chance to say good-bye to their mother, not did they have a way to deal with their feelings.  For Scottie, the youngest, who had been largely ignored by her parents as they went their separate ways, her feelings are confusing and unsettling, causing her to lash out at her friends.

- Alexandra, burdened with the knowledge of her mother’s affair, is left with a combination of rage, betrayal and sadness, feelings that can never be acknowledged nor resolved.


- Matt is left with feelings of remorse and regret that he was not a better husband and father.

- He is also full of rage toward Elizabeth for her betrayal.  Since he learned about her affair after the accident, he had no opportunity to confront her with his feelings.

-  He is at a loss how to be a father to his children at the very moment that they need him more that ever before.

-  At one time, he had decided to sell the property.  Facing up to the many crises that  surrounded Elizabeth’s accident, he begins to have second thoughts.  He wrestles with uncertainty and doubt.

These are all wicked problems.  As we watch the movie, we have an opportunity to experience them through the lives of Matt King, his children, and his friends and family.   For each of the problems – unique, complicated, messy – there is no “correct” solution or answer.  No one is wise enough to tell Matt what he should do.   There is only a “best way” forward for each wicked problem, one that Matt and the others must discover for themselves.  Acting in ignorance, they can only do the best that they can.  The movie ends with an hopeful expression of reconciliation and love.  Yet it is clear that the challenge of the three of them “becoming a family” is not over, and will continue for rest of their lives.

(Request:  For future posts, please send me the names of films, plays and books that have helped you learn about, and perhaps navigate your way through, “wicked problems.”)

(taming wicked) PROBLEMS

CIMG0096April 29, 2014

(The three central ideas of this website are Taming, Wicked, and Problems.  This entry – Problems – completes an exploration of these foundational concepts, and is the first of several entries which will examine in more detail a number of issues and complications that arise when we say “Problem.” )


Pope Francis is worried.  This should come as no surprise to anyone who has been following recent events in the Catholic Church.  If you were  pope, or if I were, we would be worrying too.  After all, worrying is what popes do. What is Pope Francis worried about?  Since I have no inside information, all I can do is quote the American humorist Will Rogers, who said in the 1920′s:  ”All I know is what I read in the papers…”

Among the many things that Pope Francis seems to be worrying about are these:  peace in the world; the spiritual needs of the members of the faith he leads; pedophile priests who abuse children;  bishops and cardinals who live in opulent mansions and drive expensive cars;  the poor and downtrodden people throughout the world who suffer; the role of women in the Church; income inequality;  the failure of trickle-down economics;  the destructive effects of unbridled capitalism, and on and on.  In short, what this Pope worries about are big, serious, complicated, messy problems.  And given the way things are going, it seems safe to assume that Pope Francis will have plenty to worry about for the foreseeable future.

In this respect, we all are like Pope Francis.  We worry.  While some of the things we worry about may overlap with some of Pope Francis’ concerns, most do not.  Some of us may worry about world peace, but most of the time we are concerned about personal issues:  financial pressures, health challenges, relationships with loved ones, career choices, job prospects, conflict and disagreements with others, getting old, an estranged child, and on and on.

Some of our worries may be important, others trivial; most are real, others are imaginary.  We may worry about something important that happened in the past, or something that we believe may happen in the future.  We think about – and often worry about – what we have done, or not done; about what others have done, or may do.  We worry about whether we will able to meet the challenges that we believe are coming.  What if we fail?  What will we do if we can’t measure up?  We even worry about worrying!  And, strange as it may seem, some people worry about not having anything to worry about!

What all of us worry about, the Pope included, are problems.  When we run into what we feel is a problem that worries us – things are not going the way we believe they should, for example – what do we do?  We begin to think about ways to make them better.  Actually, it is only then, when we are worrying about a problem, that thinking begins!  As the American John Dewey philosopher wrote in the 1920′s, “We only think when we are confronted with a problem.”

All Life is Problem Solving

So, no problems?  Then no thinking and no worrying.  Yet few of us make it through a day without some thinking and even some worrying, or without running into problems of one kind or another.  Problems, thinking about them, worrying about them and working on them, are part of everyday life.  This perspective – that thinking and worrying are always connected to our struggles with problems that we care about but are not able to solve easily or quickly – has led philosophers and psychologists to argue that dealing with problems is at the center of our lives.  There is no learning without problems to learn from, they say, nor is there any perception of objects or events, nor sustained effort, nor growth, without problems to provide us with both the context and the motivation to pay attention to what is happening,  and then to move to action.

Karl Popper, regarded by the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy as “one of the greatest philosophers of the 20th century,” published a book in 1994 titled All Life is Problem Solving.  His central idea was that in order to live – to meet our needs and reach our goals – we must act.  Wendell Berry, American philosopher and farmer, agrees with Popper:   “One of our problems is that we humans cannot live without action; we have to act.  Moreover, we have to act on the basis of what we know, and what we know is incomplete.” And then Berry gets to the heart of the matter:  ”…the question of how to act in ignorance is paramount.”

The continuing challenge of acting in ignorance will lead us sooner or later, and usually sooner, to making mistakes.  Our mistakes often create additional obstacles that block our way and hinder our progress toward our goals.  These obstacles, barriers and detours, are among the problems which make up our lives.  Since “all life is problem solving,” then what we must do with them is solve them, or at least try to.  Everything we value depends upon how well we do:   Growth, satisfaction, success, progress, even survival, are all contingent upon our abilities to go over, go under, go around or go through the obstacles that stand  in our way.  Actually, going through may be preferred:  ”…the best way out is always through” wrote  the poet Robert Frost in 1915.

All life , in many important ways, is problem solving.  But not all the time.  There will be long stretches when we float along in calm water, enjoying the scenery,  with little thinking or worrying.  ”Things are good,” we think, “I’ll have another sandwich.”   But it doesn’t last.  Before long we will find ourselves once again in the rapids,  the turbulent and unpredictable “white water” that threatens to swamp us.  And so, we pick up a paddle and get to work.

Making a Difference

Since, as Karl Popper insists, “life is problem solving,”   then the way we can make a difference for good in our lives, in the lives of others, at work, in our communities, and in our nation, is by finding and dealing successfully with important problems.

Pope Francis knows this.  On February 25th, 2014, The New York Times reported that Pope Francis announced a major restructuring of the “Vatican’s outdated administrative and economic bureaucracy as he established an agency to oversee budgets and financial planning…” He also created “a powerful post of auditor general to guard against financial mismanagement.”

“The changes,” continued the Times,” are the latest example of how Francis is moving to confront management problems as part of his broader mandate to overhaul the Roman Curia…”  Clearly, this Pope is planning to make a difference.

Among the requirements for dealing with our problems, writes John Gardner in his insightful book,  Morale, “is that we confront them, identify them early, appraise them honestly, and avoid complacency or evasion.”  Many of us are not good at this.  We find it easier to deny that they exist, or pretend they are not important.  At times, we find it convenient to suggest that someone else should handle them.  And sometimes we just seem to agree with Charlie Brown in Peanuts:  ”No problem is so big and complicated that it can’t be run away from.”

If we realize that “all life is problem solving,” and “we cannot live without acting,”  then running away from them is a bad idea that will only lead to more problems.  What we know about  them- our meta-knowledge – and what we are able to do with them – our skills and abilities  - is central to living a successful and satisfying life.  Without them,   we will find ourselves in the middle of  dangerous  ”white water” without a paddle.