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Problem Solving

Image by Bob Dmyt from Pixabay

I’ve always enjoyed problem solving. It’s surely one of life’s most important skills. However, I’ve often felt blocked by others when I set out to solve a problem that includes someone else, and this brief piece by Seth Godin may have just helped me see why.

Godin makes a distinction between a problem (implying a solution(s)) and a situation, something outside our power to change.

He points out the first step in solving a problem is to agree a problem exists.

Whoops!

I learned as a child to be deeply self-reliant and as independent as possible. More often than not, asking for help or understanding made whatever situation I was struggling with much, much worse. So I learned not to. I don’t deny problems to myself, but I don’t share them readily, either. Being honest about what’s not working makes us vulnerable. It means we have to come out of hiding. It’s risky. I don’t want to be that direct and clear about my experience, because it feels disempowering and dangerous.

Learning curves are messy, and as I’ve worked on being more connected with others, I’ve gradually risked sharing problems involving others.

Sometimes I’ve received support and understanding, along with good advice and questions to help me better define whatever I’m dealing with.

Sometimes I’ve felt shut down and silenced.

I’ve never started with an objective discussion in which I clearly state the nature of my problem and ask for another point of view. Is it a problem for anyone else in the picture, or is it a situation? Do others involved feel it’s a problem worth solving? Can we agree to move forward together to seek a solution, even if there’s no easy or certain one right now?

I leap directly to problem solving before I’ve had any agreement that anyone else experiences a problem. I change my behavior, come up with strategies, and start tackling the problem. When my problem-solving strategies cause friction with others, I’m hurt and angry. This is a problem, right? I’m trying to solve my problem. I’m not asking you to solve it, I’m solving it. Why can’t you let me take care of my needs?

It would work if we all lived in bubbles instead of a web of interconnection, but inevitably, if I change my behavior, those connected to me are affected. And we don’t like it when people rock our boats, especially if we don’t believe in the problem they’re trying to manage.

Photo by Ashkan Forouzani on Unsplash

Like, say, coping with a global health crisis. The last three years have been a marvelous illustration of what happens when people disagree about problems and solutions (or at least mitigations). Chaos. Undermining. Disinformation. Division. Even violence.

When we can’t find validation for our feeling of urgency around a problem, then what?

I can’t answer for anyone else, but I set out to ease or solve the problem with solutions I have the power to implement. Sometimes they’re small tweaks. Sometimes they’re extreme, scorched-earth, desperate choices because I saw no other way.

Sometimes my problem is someone else’s convenience, pleasure, or deliberate choice.

Sometimes, and this is worth mentioning loudly, I tackle problems not belonging to me. I do it out of good intentions, with a desire to strengthen connection, but it rarely works out well. The problems of others are not mine to solve. It’s hard for me to understand mild bitching is not a plea for assistance in solving a problem. This is an area in which I continue to work on healthy boundaries.

Refusing to help, stalling, or obstructing problem-solving doesn’t stop me from going forward with solutions to my own challenges. It simply sends me underground, which is where I work most comfortably anyway.

Another block to solving problems: The Status Quo. Good old SQ.

If, and it’s a big if, we can agree on the problem, the SQ will immediately spring to life and block every attempt to make different choices. The SQ is comfortable. It knows what to expect. It understands how current systems and dynamics work. If something changes, the problem might become worse. It might multiply into several other problems. Change is hard. It might cost too much money. We don’t have time and energy for it right now. We’re not focused. We’ll forget. We’re too distracted. It’s not that big a problem, after all. In fact, why are you making such a fuss over nothing? Are you tired? Or sick? Or about to get your period? Are you in menopause? Are you having a bad day, sweetheart? Why don’t you relax and have a drink? Or a pint of ice cream? Or a pill? Or a cigarette? You’ll feel better then.

Don’t you think you’re being a little dramatic?

The SQ, you see, doesn’t want to lose any power, especially power it stole from others on the way to becoming the SQ. If you solve your problem, the SQ might lose ground. Not acceptable. You wouldn’t want to solve your problem at the expense of the SQ, would you?

I’ve written before about Bill Eddy’s work on high-conflict personalities. One of his strategies is to ask people who are dissatisfied or actively complaining for a plan. This acknowledges the perceived problem, invites ideas about solving it, and helps the high-conflict person feel heard and validated. It also asks them to take responsibility for changing the situation in such a way that a refusal is obvious and public. It forces active contribution rather than passive trouble-making. Are they complaining as a habit, or are they serious about creating a better way to do things?

Image by Valeria Lo Iacono from Pixabay

I’ve tried this, and in real life some people will simply shrug and say, “I dunno.” They have no plan. They have no interest in a plan. I don’t know if they don’t see a problem needing a solution, or they’re lazy, or simply deeply invested in complaining and don’t want to lose the source of their complaint. For whatever reason, they stonewall the process of problem solving.

Some folks will respond to a request for a plan. Often, people do have ideas about what might work better, what might be worth trying, or are interested in coming up with a new system. They only want an invitation.

A third response is the most problematic. These are the people who refuse to be clear. They won’t admit there is a problem, but there might be. They won’t admit it needs to be, might be, or could be solved. They won’t take any responsibility for the problem, even if they’re an involved stakeholder. They refuse to consider solutions and possible outcomes. They stall, obstruct, and speak for the status quo.

They don’t openly refuse to cooperate, but their noncooperation makes the message clear: It’s not who I am. I won’t remember. It’s silly. It’s too much trouble. It’s inconvenient. I’m not doing that!

I’ve drawn a new map for problem solving:

  • Define the problem. Be sure it belongs to me.
  • Seek agreement on the defined problem from others directly involved with or affected by it.
  • Ask everyone involved (including myself) for a plan. Consider each plan. Think about why, how and if it might or might not work. Come up with possible outcomes, positive and negative, for each plan.
  • Choose a plan, or to delay, or redefine the problem as a situation, at least for now.

I can’t help feeling it’s far easier to just solve problems on my own. Seriously.

On the other hand, I’m not alone in my house, my workplace, my community, or my life. Probably a good thing. Problems are inevitable, and solving them can be a team sport.

But not with everyone.

Walking Away

Can you walk away? Will you choose to?

Photo by Dan Gold on Unsplash

This piece from Leo Babauta hit my Inbox recently, and I’ve been turning it over in my mind.

Before I go any further, I need a moment to sit here and shudder. Because walking away is hard. It’s devastating. It’s an atomic bomb.

At least it’s felt that way when I’ve done it in my personal life, probably because I’ve waited, dithering, denying, distracting, hanging on and trying harder, so long for things to change. For me to change. For the other person to change. For divine intervention. For some event or person to rescue me.

By the time I do walk away I’m utterly exhausted and used up, and I hate myself far more than those affected by my walking away, though they, of course, don’t understand that. The relief inherent in walking away, the freedom, the reclamation of personal power, have only made me hate myself more.

Babauta’s article doesn’t start with the interpersonal stuff, though. He comes at it from a minimalist perspective. Can you walk away from an unhappy job? From a new car? From a deal or negotiation? From a tempting but unethical situation in which you might gain? From a new gadget or toy you really want but don’t need and can’t afford? From being too busy, too noisy, too tired, too stimulated?

Can you walk away from what the neighbors think, or your family? Can you walk away from the belief you need any particular person in your life to be happy? Can you walk away from your hopes and the beautiful dream you know is never coming true? Can you walk away from a toxic situation you’re deeply invested in? Can you walk away from the things and/or people destroying you?

Photo by Ian Espinosa on Unsplash

If you can’t walk, can you crawl away? On your belly, clawing at the ground, sobbing, naked and alone, can you crawl away?

It’s more than that, though. Will you?

Most of us can walk away if we have to. Many of us have had to and have done it. But who hasn’t felt stuck, unable to walk away, no matter how dark and dirty our fantasies are of leaving it all behind?

(Come on, I know you’ve had that fantasy at some time or another. Get in the car and drive until … until you’ve reached the edge of the world, of your life. Until you’ve run out of money or gas. Until you hit the ocean. Until you can stop.

Or go out the front door and start walking without looking back. Disappear. Vanish like a drop of water in the desert. Become nameless, faceless, rootless, homeless.)

But sometimes we feel stuck. Forever. Or what might as well be forever, because in this moment we’re so tired, so drained, so empty, there’s no comfort in the thought that things will change someday. One day.

One day is too far ahead. We’re not sure how to get through this day. But we have to. And the day after that. And the day after that. We made promises. We have responsibilities, loyalties, duties to others. We’re the keystone, the essential piece, the glue holding it together. It depends on us. If we’re not there … what? What would happen? Would everybody die? Would their lives be ruined? Would the sky fall?

Would they stop loving us?

That’s the worst fear, isn’t it? They’ll stop loving us. We love them and we have to walk away and then they’ll stop loving us. How can anyone love us when we’ve walked away? How can we love ourselves? How can anyone ever understand?

Does love require we allow ourselves to be destroyed? Are we supposed to love others more than ourselves?

Or are we allowed to walk away if we must to save our own lives? But what if no one believes us?

(For God’s sake, stop whining! Stop making such a big deal out of everything! You’re so dramatic!)

The terrible, inescapable truth about walking away is if we can’t do it, we’ve given away part of our power. If we choose to do it and reclaim our power, the price can bankrupt us financially, mentally, and emotionally.

On the other hand, sometimes the simple act of walking away sets us free in extraordinary, joyful ways we can’t even imagine.

Sometimes (perhaps hardest of all) we face annihilating consequences and experience freedom.

Can I walk away?

Will I choose to?

By Marianna Smiley on Unsplash

Change

After years of hesitation, I have given up my landline and transitioned to my cell phone.

Many who read this will shake their heads in amazement at my tardiness, but I know others will understand.

Photo by Quino Al on Unsplash

When I think back about why I hesitated for so long, the simple root is I’ve always had a landline.

I’ve always had a landline, and it’s served me just fine. Why fix something that’s not broken? Why do I need some kind of new high-tech toy? (Okay, I know they’re not new new. But I grew up with rotary phones with curly cords, so in my personal context they’re pretty new.)

Another big reason was my internal protest against habits and technology which break connection. The TV is my most hated object under this heading, but when I watch people in the world bent over their screens, I feel angry, sad, and scared. Why can’t we make human, face-to-face, real connections anymore? Why can’t we actually watch our child while they’re in a swim lesson, or at a gymnastics meet, or at their horseback riding lesson? Why can’t we talk to each other without constantly being interrupted and distracted by our stupid phones? Will the world stop turning if we let the call go to voicemail, or let the text wait until we’re not engaged with the human being in front of us? Is it necessary to take the cell phone everywhere we go and never turn it off? I don’t want to be that available. Living a life, here!

Refusing to participate in cell phone usage was my resistance. They can, but I’ll never be like that! Right. And my children would never say or do that. (They did.) And I would never kill an animal for food. And I would never use a gun. Etc., etc. We all want to stand on high moral ground. Good luck with that.

It’s not as though refusing to buy and learn to use a cell phone made any difference at all to the perils of social media and screen addiction or fixed our social and cultural dynamics around connection and communication.

We just moved house, and I realized I was paying quite a bit for a landline I rarely used. My friends all use cell phones. My kids use cell phones. My workplace uses cell phones, including an app for a daily COVID check. I wondered why I was paying for a landline and a cell phone which I rarely used.

I did some research. I found landlines are on the way out, probably in the next 10 years. We were moving to a small city with good cell phone infrastructure and excellent access to WIFI and Internet.

I talked to my friends, who were supportive and kindly did not laugh at my hesitation, at least not in front of me. None of them have landlines.

As I cancelled and transitioned our utilities during the move, I let go of the landline.

Everyone knows the chaos of moving. I was uncomfortable with the cell phone at first. It was a learning curve. But boy, was it a great tool! My partner and I could stay in touch about timing, U-Haul rentals, where that important box was, scheduling the electrician, dumpster, and plumber, and who was going to have the key to the old house and the new house at any particular time. Quickly texting back and forth was a huge help. It didn’t take long to get comfortable with the device. I had to. It was all I had.

Somewhere along the learning curve I remembered the cell phone is my tool, not the other way around. If I don’t want to take it everywhere I go, I don’t have to. If I want to turn it off, I can. If I want to ignore a call or text, that’s my choice. It can’t disempower me unless I allow it to do so. I’m perfectly free to continue to prioritize my relationships and myself over answering or playing with my phone.

The whole thing has made me think about change in general. I’ll never be a person who immediately welcomes the latest gadget and technology. I’m a traditionalist, and I’m nearing 60. I want to live a simple life. I don’t want to buy or own a lot of objects. I’ll always enjoy a good book more than any kind of technology. I’ll always prefer a face-to-face interaction with my loved ones to a text or phone call.

On the other hand, new technology can be amazingly useful. I’ve discarded most of my music CDs at this point, because almost everything I want to listen to is on Spotify. Less stuff. Less storage. Less to move. All I need is – you guessed it! – my cell phone!

Not all change is bad. Not all change is good. I deliberated for years about getting an iPod. I never did, and then Apple discontinued them and I was glad I didn’t have one. I clung to a large computer with a tower, keyboard, and mouse (with a cord) for a long time. Then my brother talked me into getting a laptop, and it’s all I want to use now. It’s so much easier and more streamlined in every way.

Photo by freddie marriage on Unsplash

Change is always with us. The pandemic has been a notable catalyst for change in the last two or three years. Some of the changes it imposed and continues to impose were unwelcome, but we notice at work it forced us to create some more effective procedures we’ll probably retain even after the current restrictions are over.

Sometimes big problems require change, and often we’re resistant. However, on the other side of our discomfort and resistance we might find a better, safer, more equitable world. Those who don’t want a better, safer, more equitable world exploit our discomfort around change by making dramatic predictions and distorting and polarizing our choices, playing on our fear, playing on our entitlement. We’ve seen a lot of that with the pandemic, and now we’re seeing it again after the latest tragic school shooting in Texas. Red flag laws and sensible gun control do not mean everyone (including teachers) has a gun, and they don’t mean some malign alien superlizard overlord running the government will take away everyone’s guns, either. Get a grip, people!

Most change takes time. For a couple of years I had both a cell phone and a landline. Things happened, I reevaluated my phones, and I was ready to make a complete transition, so I did. Change is neither the enemy nor our One True Love. Maybe it’s just a new friend who could make our world a bit better if we allow it to. And who doesn’t want to see a better world?

Photo by Hian Oliveira on Unsplash

The Tower

In the Tarot, there’s a card called The Tower. It’s traditionally illustrated with a tower falling. The meaning of the card is destruction, chaos, danger, crisis, and unforeseen change. And liberation.

Liberation.

By K Mitch Hodge on Unsplash

Some years ago, in the months before I moved from Colorado to Maine, my life unraveled in several painful ways. During those months, I pulled The Tower card from my Tarot deck (78 cards) time after time, though I always shuffle and cut the deck thoroughly before I draw cards. I couldn’t get away from it.

It didn’t tell me anything I didn’t already know. I felt for a time as though my life would never be anything else. I would never escape the falling tower. I didn’t think much about the liberation part, because when our lives are toppling we don’t think about anything except surviving the collapse.

I had a crate of odds and ends of wood from building a privacy fence and a deck. I pulled it out of my shed and built a tower on a table on the covered deck outside my front door. I hadn’t played with blocks since my children were young. The chunks of wood were in all kinds of odd shapes, and building the tallest tower possible was an absorbing task.

When my tower was finished, I left it standing for a few hours or a day or so, enjoying it as I went about my life and in and out of my little log cabin. Then, when the time was right and I needed an outlet for my fear and frustration, I would knock it down. Hard. Loudly. I would obliterate it, sending the pieces of wood flying, sweeping the tabletop clear. It was a practice of surrender. If the tower was inevitably going to fall, I wouldn’t try to prop it up. I’d create a glorious, earth-shaking, no-holds-barred collapse. I wouldn’t look away or pretend it wasn’t happening or try to escape or soften the situation. I would face my fear.

After a while I built it again.

And again.

And again.

I did that for months. I built and knocked down more than 100 towers while I pulled the card over and over again.

I had a dream a couple of weeks ago about wandering through a field of rubble from a fallen tower. In spite of the destruction, it was a peaceful, sunny, summer landscape. I felt no sense of dread or doom. There had obviously been a violent and frightening collapse, but it was over now, and all was serene. I found some scattered objects amongst the stone rubble. Some things were intact, but others were smashed to pieces. I was thinking about sorting through the wreckage and salvaging material for a new tower and a new life.

I wasn’t scared. I was peaceful.

I was starting again. I’ve done that before. The fear and anxiety, the feeling of oncoming disaster, were past. The worst had happened and now I was on the other side of it.

I was excited about piecing together a new tower.

When I woke, I thought, “That damn tower!” and smiled to myself.

We are now working with a fifth contract for the sale of this property. That’s right. Number 5. Gas has more than doubled from last year’s price. The cat food shortage goes on and on. Prices for everything are skyrocketing. I just received our power bill, which has doubled from last month, though our usage is slightly less. We are on the edge of war, thanks to Russia.

I remember this feeling of the tower falling.

Photo by Dan Gold on Unsplash

But I also remember the liberation on the other side. I remember starting afresh. I remember taking a long journey into health and healing, into creativity, into an entirely new life. In some ways, for the last seven years I’ve been working in a field of rubble, carefully salvaging and sorting the usable from the discards. I’ve thought long and hard about the kind of life I want to build now, and about my needs and resources.

I’m not on the other side yet. One of these days I will be, and I feel that day coming closer, though I don’t know how or when. I lie awake on windy nights and wonder if, metaphorically speaking, the wind will knock down the tower. Or will the rain take it down in the end? Or a spring ice storm? Or a completely unlooked-for earthquake, fire, or flood?

Or will it gently collapse, stone by stone, falling quietly into ruin around me?

Whatever happens, there will be debris and rubble. Some material will be salvageable.

I will start, as I have before, with what I have, with what remains, with myself.

When my last tower fell, I learned two important things. One is that a home, no matter how beloved, is not a life. It cannot keep me safe, happy, and secure for the rest of my days. It cannot substitute for my connections, contribution, or self-love. The place I live does not define me.

The second is that I am not my things. My security, identity, memories, strength, courage, and creativity do not reside in objects around me, the clothes I wear, the furniture I use, or the dishes I eat off of.

Many people new to the Tarot fear The Tower card. Few of us welcome destruction, chaos, danger, crisis and unforeseen change. However, change does come. Towers do fall. And once the terror and tumult have passed, we find ourselves in a new world with a chance to make a fresh start.

We might not have wanted to be liberated from anything. Or, on the other hand, we may have longed for liberation. In any case, we are suddenly dropped into a different life. The tower fell. We take some time for recovery.

Then it’s time to rebuild.

By K Mitch Hodge on Unsplash

More or Less

A frequent conversation among my coworkers at our rehab pool facility, as well as our mostly middle-aged and older patrons and patients, has to do with the unexpected places life takes us. How did we get here from there?

Photo by yatharth roy vibhakar on Unsplash

For some this is a bittersweet question, for others an amusing one, and for others a bewildered or even despairing one. Whatever our current reality is, none of us could have foreseen or imagined it when we were young adults.

We can all talk about dreams we’ve had, intentions, hopes, and choices we’ve made in pursuit of the life we imagined we wanted, but life itself is always a wild card. It picks us up by the scruff of our neck, sweeps us away, and casts us onto strange shores.

As I age and practice minimalism, I realize keeping my dreams flexible has never been more important. My dreams, along with everything else, change. What I longed for as a young woman is not what I want now. What I needed in midlife is not what I want as I approach my 60s. Some things I’ve thought of as merely desirable are now essential, and other things I thought I needed no longer seem important.

In some ways I like dancing with change, my own as well as external circumstances. It feels dynamic and healthy. Resilience and adaptation are strong life skills.

In other ways it’s hard, the way my needs and I change. Often, I feel my own natural change and growth are hurtful to others. I try to hold them back. I try to stop myself, make myself quiet and small so no one will be upset, including me!

In the end, though, there’s something in me that’s wild, and sure, and deeply rooted in the rightness of change. It can’t be silenced or stifled, and there’s no peace for me until I begin living true to myself once again, no matter the cost.

The costs are very high. The personal costs of living authentically have been catastrophic for me. Sometimes I feel I’ve paid with everything I ever valued.

And yet the power of living authentically, the peace of it, the satisfaction of shaping a life that really works and makes me happy … How much is too much to sacrifice for that?

For a long time, I’ve thought about balance. Financial balance. Work-life balance, which is a term so nonspecific as to be useless. Balancing time. Balancing socialization and solitude. Balancing sitting and writing with physical activity. The complex balance of give and take in relationships. Balancing needs and power.

Minimalism is about balance. Achieving a simple life demands balance, something hard to find in an overcrowded life. Practicing simplicity and working toward balance take mindfulness, which is a difficult skill to hone in our loud, distracting, manipulative and addictive consumer culture. There’s a lot of social pressure to want more and bigger, to hang on tightly to our things.

But I want less. I want less stuff, less expense, less noise (visual and otherwise), less maintenance, less complication. I want less because I want more. I want more peace, more beauty, more sustainability, more time for loved ones and the activities that are most important to me. Gardening. Animals. Walking. Writing. Playing. Spiritual practice.

I don’t want more than I need. I don’t need more than I can use, enjoy, take care of, or pay for.

I do want to accommodate change, my own, and changing circumstances around me. The simpler and easier my life is, the more space I have to welcome my own aging and wherever my life journey takes me next. I don’t make myself crazy trying to anticipate all the future possibilities, but I want to know I can live well with the resource I have and build reserves for whatever the future brings.

Ironically, it often takes resource to go from more to less. Financial resource. Time and energy resource. It takes sacrifice, in the sense of being willing to give up things valued for the sake of things even more valuable and worthy. In its own way, moving in the direction of living simply is as much work and emotional cost as the endless treadmill of more. It does have an end point, though, whereas more is never satisfied.

Last week I read a post from Joel Tefft titled ‘Abandon, Embrace‘. He suggests daily journaling (which I also highly recommend) using the writing prompts: Today I abandon ___ and today I embrace ___. This is balance in action. What is not helping? What is most important? Abandon something in order to make space for something better.

We can’t find a place for what’s most important if our cup is already too full.

Photo by ORNELLA BINNI on Unsplash

Deciding what kind of a life we want to live and working to create it is a difficult process of choice. It’s difficult because it can be so hard to tell the truth about our needs and feelings. Sometimes we have to give up on cherished dreams and hopes, come to terms with our current limitations. Our choices can affect others in hurtful ways. Sacrifice is not easy. Managing our feelings is not easy.

Choosing, as I’ve said before, involves consequences we can’t always control.

But to make choices, especially difficult ones, is to be standing in our power, as is creating an authentic life that allows us to grow deep roots and be the best and happiest we can be, for ourselves, for our loved ones, and for the world.