I once went to a lecture by a very distinguished professor specialising in plant biology and the production of cabbages, wheat and barley. His first slide showed a medieval saying: “those with bread, may have many problems. Those without it, have only one.”

After that opening I couldn’t concentrate on the rest of the lecture.

Is it possible that problems proliferate to fill the space available?

Can we change what problems we have? Obviously not always. Sometimes one is just lumbered with problems. They choose us. Luck, including bad luck, is part of life and is pretty effective at delivering problems.

But I kept thinking and felt that every now and then the opportunity to choose probably does arise.

In science we do it all the time. The great scientist and writer Peter Medawar encouraged young scientists to choose solvable problems (if you can tell which those are!). He said that a scientist’s job is to solve problems, not grapple with them. The best scientists are very good at choosing problems.

I recall a senior leader suggesting to me once that a university should choose its problems more carefully. And not try to do everything.

On a personal level, when I get the chance, I try to choose other people’s problems. They seem less overwhelming. They are light and new. And trying to solve someone else’s problems draws you into a relationship with them. If the problems are solved, then there is a shared celebration and often an enduring alliance.

When I was a student and when I got my first job I used to get together with friends and help each other fill out painful forms, like enrolment forms or state taxes in America. It was easier, and more fun, in a group. These days helping someone else with a grant is often more rewarding than polishing and re-polishing my own grants. I recommend mentorship not just for the mentee but also for the mentor.

According to most of the world’s old learning, being selfless and concentrating on helping others should be prioritised. In the past this often took the form of serving god, king or country.

By the time I was a student the ideas of god, king and country were fading. In their place the idea of opposing this trinity took hold as a way of shouldering the world’s problems. People fought for freedom and for the rights of individuals against the state, and for a global future for humanity rather than nationalistic narrowness. The problems became very big but the weight was spread across the globe.

There are many noble causes worth fighting for. Being involved in these struggles creates a sense of unity and a community that arises in part from working against a, sometimes imagined, common enemy.

I notice that during the pandemic we are being advised to build a routine and keep lists. Lists are great ways of choosing problems. Exercising the dogs, feeding the cats, tidying the house, dropping off food for friends, mowing the lawn, vacuuming the floors, raking up the leaves, running round the block. Apparently, we’re meant to begin each day by making the bed. Voltaire, in Candide, advised us to tend to our garden. It is a privilege if we get to choose these problems. Lighter than struggling with the meaning of life or the means of living.

The means of living – “those who have bread, may have many problems, those without bread have only one”. And surely those without bread would swap that one problem for all the others. Gradually, over the last few millennia collective human knowledge has been (unevenly) solving the practical problems that fate spews forth – hunger, thirst, cold.

We should be thankful for this and to all those who have solved problems big and small. We should be grateful to all those who have worked on COVID and found solutions to this big and urgent problem. But after COVID we should not be disappointed when new problems emerge and old ones return. That is the nature of things.  We should not be disappointed because there is a great hope in this.  That we can continue to unite to share the new problems, and to choose to work together on them, rather than each of us trying to solve them alone, or blaming one another for them.

Professor Merlin Crossley

Deputy Vice-Chancellor Academic and Student Life

UNSW, Sydney


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