June 11, 2017
It does not do to leave a live dragon out of your calculations, if you live near him.
J. R. R. Tolkien
Let a huge, repulsive, scaly, fire-breathing dragon stand in for your most worrisome and troublesome problem. And then imagine a herd of huge, repulsive, scaly and fire-breathing dragons that represent all of the problems that you are grappling with. And finally, notice that they have rented the house next door and have moved in. Your situation has become at the very least, “interesting.” Having dragons live next door may be a reason to think about moving to a better neighborhood, but alas, that won’t solve your dragon problem: Move to any neighborhood you wish, and before you know it the dragons will have followed and settled in. No one escapes living next door to dragons.
Yet having dragons as neighbors may not be such a bad thing. One advantage is that you can keep track of what they are up to and be ready when one knocks at your door and wants to come in. Paraphrasing Samuel Johnson’s observation about being hanged in a fortnight, having dragons as neighbors “concentrates the mind wonderfully,” and when it comes to the wicked problems that threaten to upset your personal relationships and shove your career into a ditch, concentrating the mind “wonderfully” is recommended.
Hic Svnt Dragones
Throughout history, people have been both intrigued by and worried about dragons. At first, people believed that dragons actually existed, but later they came to stand for all that was threatening and dangerous. In the early years of global exploration, when map makers ran out of knowledge and were no longer able to draw islands or continents on their maps, they drew pictures of dragons, elephants, hippos and even cannibals, things that seemed to be mysterious, threatening, and dangerous. Hic Svnt Dracones (“Here be dragons”) and Hic Svnt Leones (“Here be lions”), they wrote on the blank spaces on their maps, words that undoubtedly made explorers and sailors pause.
What Are We To Do With Dragons?
“It does not do,” writes J. R. R. Tolkien, “to leave a live dragon out of your calculations, [especially] if you live near him.” While there are some deniers who insist that problems don’t really exist and it would be better to ignore them and focus on the positive aspects of life, most of us understand that we do in fact live next door to dragons – live ones and some very active – and have learned that it is not a good idea to leave them out of our calculations. “People who deny the existence of dragons,” writes Ursula Le Guin, “are often eaten by dragons.” Yet it is one thing to accept that dragons exist and need to be included in our calculations; it is quite another to know what is the best thing to do with them.
Since it is not a good idea to leave them out of our calculations, what does it mean to include them in? Kate Atkinson, at the beginning of her stunning and provocative novel, A God in Ruins, addresses this question by recounting the legend of St. George, renowned and honored throughout all Christendom for his courage in battling a dragon. Quoting from Scouting for Boys, Robert Baden-Powell’s famous manual, she writes:
“On one occasion St. George came to a city named Salem, near which lived a dragon who had to be fed daily with one of the citizens drawn by lot. The day St. George came there the lot had fallen upon the king’s daughter, Cliolinda. St. George resolved that she should not die, and so he went out and attacked the dragon, who lived in a swamp close by, and killed him.
When he was faced by a difficulty or a danger, however great it appeared to him – even in the shape of a dragon – he did not avoid it, but went at it with all the power he could put into himself and his horse. Although inadequately armed for such an encounter, having merely a spear, he charged in, did his best and finally succeeded in overcoming a difficulty which nobody had dared to tackle.
This is exactly the way [we] should face a difficulty or danger, no matter how great or terrifying it may appear to [us] or how ill-equipped [we] may be for the struggle.”
Facing the Dragons Next Door
Including the dragons that live next door in our calculations means:
- Being “resolved” to make a difference.
- Paying close attention to them and making every effort to figure out what they are up to.
- Accepting them for what they are, neither denying their existence nor minimizing their importance.
- Calling them by their real names.
- Facing up to them (“He did not avoid [the dragon] or fear it”).
- Moving toward them (“[He] went at it with all the power he could put into himself and his horse”).
- And, even though we may be ill-prepared for the battle, we should “charge in and do our best.”
What we must do with dragons is grapple with them, up-close, face-to-face, mano-a-mano, force them to the ground, and get some measure of control over them. Eventually our goal is to tame them sufficiently so we can live side-by-side and enjoy a reasonable level of peace and tranquility.
But there is another side to this story: Grappling successfully with dragons – wrestling with complex, wicked problems – does more than impose some measure of control on them. It also offers in return numerous and surprising benefits. It is only by grappling and wrestling with difficult problems that we learn what it means to be adults. It is how we discover what must be done and how we are to do it. It is only by struggling against the dragons in the world that the world is changed into a better one where we can live, work, and raise our children in health and safety. And it is only by attacking our wicked problems that we are able to grow, turning our fears into confidence and our weaknesses into strengths.
And one more thing: Many people have reported that coming up against problems that really mattered with no clear idea about what to do, but nonetheless plunging in and grappling with them, often resulted in what psychologist Abraham Maslow called “a peak experience” – the experience of feeling totally alive and fully engaged, of going beyond their capabilities and acting at a level of power and confidence that surprised them. And afterward, when reflecting on what they had just been through, they were frequently flooded with feelings of profound well-being that bordered at times on exhilaration.
The Stories We Tell
“The Universe is made up of stories, not of atoms,” writes the poet Muriel Rukeyser. We understand what the universe is and how it works – especially what is important and what isn’t – not by learning about atoms, molecules, quarks and electrons, but from the stories we tell each other. And the stories that help us make sense of what happens around us, and the ones we remember throughout our lives and tell our children and grandchildren, are the ones that describe our struggles with difficult, messy, problems, which is to say, with wicked ones.
Throughout the Christian world, St. George is among the most revered and venerated of the saints. There are thousands of paintings, sculptures, woodcuts, and icons, that depict St. George on his horse, spear in hand, fighting the dragon. He is the patron saint of England, Portugal, Greece, and Lithuania and dozens of other countries as well.
What is not recorded on any of these paintings, sculptures, woodcuts, icons and woodcarvings, is what St. George did after he killed the dragon and returned home. What I would like to believe happened is that after he kissed his wife, took care of his horse, and had supper, he called his children to gather by his side by the fireplace and said, “I am going to tell you a story about what happened today.”
Running Toward Problems
Why did St George become such a figure of admiration, awe and respect? One reason may be that unlike many others who passed by over the years, when he learned there was a dragon “next door,” he chose to ride toward the dragon and do battle with it.
When we come upon a serious problem, we, like St. George, have choices: move on past, move away, or move toward it. Moving toward the problem, spear in hand, is the best way, and often the only way, to make a difference.
Lisa Su, CEO of AMD, a semiconductor manufacturing company, is in favor of moving toward problems, but for her this is not enough. She is in favor of running toward them!
“What career and life advice do you give new college grads?” asks Adam Bryant, author of the New York Times column “Corner Office” in his interview with Lisa Su published on May 21, 2017.
Her response makes clear that she understands what it means to include the dragons who live in the neighborhood in her calculations:“The best piece of advice I got when I was a young engineer was to run toward problems. Many people tend to shy away from problems. To advance in your career, you need to be smart and capable, but you also need to be lucky. And you can make your luck. The way you do that is to do a really good job on something that’s really hard. Don’t be afraid to take the risk. Some of my best work was done under an enormous amount of stress, but it brings out the best in you. So I tell people, ‘Look for the hardest problems and volunteer to help solve them.”
“Readiness is All”
“Look for the hardest problems and volunteer to help solve them?” Is she serious? A lifetime of experience with problems tells me that she is not only serious but insightful. If we run toward our most serious problems and engage them in energetic combat, we not only increase our chances of constructive movement toward our goals, but we also put into motion a set of unexpected and unanticipated forces that can enhance our own personal growth and development: The world gets better and we get stronger, wiser, more confident, and better prepared for the next encounter. This sounds to me like a bargain worth pursuing.
If we choose to run toward our most difficult problems instead of away from them – highly recommended if success and satisfaction are high on our lists of goals – what we will discover when we close in is that most of them – just like dragons – are wicked and not tame. Most people are ill-prepared for this kind of struggle and end up being either frustrated or disappointed or both. Yet dragons will come! If they are not yet here, they are on their way. In order to confront them successfully, it behooves us to be as prepared as we possibly can be. Shakespeare’s Hamlet understood this: “If it be not now, yet it will come – the readiness is all.”