“Is your cucumber bitter? Throw it away. Are there briars in your path? Turn aside….Do not go on and say, ‘Why were things of this sort ever brought into the world?'”
— Marcus Aurelius
The key to problem-solving is that it actually involves solving problems. Which most of us are unwilling to do all that often.
We do want to talk about problems, and if very easy solutions exist (such as set of motivational CDs, 5 step to bliss program, magical weight-loss frozen meal, or pill with only minimal risk of death as side effect), we’ll go for one or more.
Otherwise, we basically want our friends, therapists, coaches, and closest 500 friends on Facebook to listen to us, offer sympathy and encouraging words, maybe even a suggestion or two.
What we don’t want is anything too complicated or honest. We get offended, and more often than not, have a low tolerance for distress or criticism.
A support network is really wonderful, and getting things off our chests helps a lot. But…if we stop short of solving the problems we claim we want to solve, all the support and good advice out there is ultimately as useful to us as a jam sandwich is to a drowning rabbit. And yes, that is an expression.
Here’s an exercise to annoy you. Think of something in your life that causes you distress, worry and frustration…something you want to change, prevent, achieve, improve…be it in yourself, or in a relationship, or professionally. (If you can’t think of anything, this isn’t for you, so go get a latte and leave us to our issues.)
Whatever problem you’re thinking about, it has to be be good and something really close to your heart. Now feel it, get annoyed at it, let yourself recognize how it irritates you and interferes with your hopes and dreams.
Imagine for a moment what your life might be like if you could just get this thing resolved. How much happier, fulfilled and connected would you be?
Are you there yet?
Ok, hopefully you’re feeling rather grumpy all of a sudden. And so time to make it worse.
Ask yourself: “what did I do/am doing to create this?…why would I choose to create this?…and finally, “what excuses am I inventing so as to not resolve this once and for all?”
If you’re doing this right, you should want to hurt me just about now.
Because deep down you know it as well as I do. If we have a problem that’s been there for a while and remains unresolved, it’s not because it can’t be resolved, or we can’t resolve it. It’s because we don’t want to resolve it, because it serves as a buffer against something we’re trying to avoid. Like wounded pride, low or unreasonably high expectations, low self-esteem, low confidence, a sense of betrayal lingering from past experiences, guilt, fear of failure, and general mistrust.
To clarify: some problems are truly unavoidable, and a consequence of systematic injustice, abuse, prejudice and so on. I’m not talking about those. What I focus on here, in this blog (which most people read on their smartphones, computer screens or iPads) are problems that assume a certain level of privilege.
One of the most upsetting things I’ve ever been told was to consider what payoffs my distress provides me. After all, I, like everyone else, often chose to be miserable and stay overwhelmed by a certain problem because of the perks.
It’s brutal to face THAT truth!
When someone isn’t functioning on any or most levels, it’s obvious something is seriously wrong in their lives, and must be addressed…or else. But for those of us who, as far as anyone can tell, are pretty successful at what we do, and are social, responsible and reasonably confident, honesty becomes much more difficult.
We don’t take kindly to the notion that we avoid underlying issues, that we replace intimacy with distractions, that our apparent wellness might be a fragile construction subject to collapse the moment we stop to consider what truly frustrates us or what’s missing in our lives.
As far as excuses, we have many. Taking decisive action threatens to reveal emotions we’d rather not face. In addition, we might be called upon to make some drastic changes and re-prioritize…which isn’t usually easy or convenient to contemplate, let alone actually take on.
And so we’d rather live with the discomfort of having some of our fundamental needs and desires perpetually frustrated via keeping problems unresolved. We become ‘resigned to reality’, we claim to be ‘living in the moment’, we focus on how others and circumstances might best be blamed for providing too many obstacles for us to overcome at this time.
We pretend to be wise in our decision to focus on ‘other’ things, invoking nothing less than the serenity prayer as validation.
Yes, there are many ways to sanitize avoidance. And as they say, de-nial is not just a river in Egypt.
So what to do? Well, it’s obvious what needs to be done…throw away the bitter cucumber, as Marcus Aurelius suggests and start problem solving!
The question remains, are we willing to do it? In too many cases, probably not.
Because excuses work, avoidance offers instant relief and protection from whatever uncomfortable baggage we carry from our past. And no matter how annoyed we are with our problems, it’s much easier in the end to collect excuses than to create solutions.
My question is this…what is all this avoidance and delay costing time-wise, health-wise, happiness-wise? How much more could we all have, be, experience and ultimately share?