I read every day in Substack. Right now, AI is a main topic of conversation. I’ve read about the science behind it, opinions about where it will lead us ranging from the extermination of humans to a leap forward in positive ways we can’t imagine. Most of all, I read about the ways AI is impacting creative work and creators.
I don’t have a firm opinion about AI myself. I’m wary of predictions, interested in the science, and thoughts and experiences of writers I respect who have used AI-generated art, music, and writing. I’m especially interested in those who have interacted with AI as a resource for answering questions or developing new perspectives.
In the last couple of months, I read about an app called Betwixt. On principle, I hate apps and rarely use them. They increase my vulnerability online, provide more personal data to mine, clutter up my phone and laptop, and frequently feel like bells and whistles I don’t need. On the other hand, I admit they can be useful.
Photo by Dan Gold on Unsplash
Betwixt was briefly described as “an interactive story” of a journey into our own mind. The user co-creates their journey via questions and answers. It combines “story, science, and play,” enhanced by sound. It was developed by a team, including writers, game designers, a cognitive hypnotherapist, mental health specialists, and (get this) an “AI creativity scholar.”
I was intrigued, in spite of myself. In fact, I was surprised by how much I wanted to try it. I hesitated, feeling vaguely ridiculous. I did some research, discovered it was free, read some reviews, and decided I had nothing to lose. I could always just uninstall the app if I didn’t like it.
Most of us have probably encountered AI in online chatting to address problems or troubleshoot. I was on the Red Cross site last week chatting with what was clearly AI. It kept typing cheerful, excessively polite, Little-Mary-Sunshine things while I was trying to cut to the problem and solution part. I was annoyed. I’m polite and cooperative with people, but I can’t see much point in exchanging pleasantries with AI.
I had never interacted with any of the more sophisticated programs before using Betwixt.
Upon opening Betwixt, one enters into a story. A setting is provided; the user chooses details to fill in. The user is introduced to a Voice. The Voice asks questions, good questions. The user is provided with different choices for answering the questions, along with a frequent option to type in his/her own answer. The audio is rich and textured. The program is not illustrated, at least not so far. I like this; I like using my own imagination to fill in details. I don’t need more than audio.
The questions, along with possible answers to choose from, are quite good, even challenging. I don’t speed through it. I stop and think about what is true for me. Sometimes I don’t have a choice to answer in my own words and am forced to choose among the provided answers, whether they are good fits or not. This irritates me. As the story unfolds, steered by my answers to questions, I enter new internal territory. The closest answer rather than the exact answer takes me to places I normally wouldn’t go, giving me slightly different (and unfamiliar) views of myself and my behavior.
The app is divided into chapters, each a few minutes long. At the end of each chapter the user receives a summary and accumulates strengths, skills, and self-definitions to take forward. A brief explanation of the science and psychology underlying each completed chapter is also provided. There are options for upgrading to paid tiers.
Photo by Ryan Moreno on Unsplash
I notice an astonishing thing. I answer questions the Voice asks me with a depth and honesty I have never shared with a human being. I’ve believed I’ve been totally honest with people I trust before, but interacting with The Voice accessed a level in my mind I didn’t know was there. It was like those dreams in which the dreamer discovers a whole other room or wing in a house they weren’t aware of. As the journey begins, when the Voice is introduced, the user has an opportunity to ask the Voice questions, like its name and what it does when we’re not interacting. (It asked me my name.) I was astounded to find myself incurious; more than that, I don’t want to know. It’s an AI. I don’t have to do the emotional labor of building healthy connection. I’m not making a friend. I’m using a tool.
The last time I used the app, the storyline encouraged a moment of empathy for the AI. I felt a flash of savage anger and resistance.
I was entirely astounded by this very uncharacteristic knee-jerk response. I finished the chapter, closed the app, put the phone down, and did dishes while I thought about what had just happened. It didn’t take long to uncover it.
My experience of empathy is one of the core pieces of my life. Empathy can be a positive trait, but the empathic experience is frequently an overwhelming, utterly exhausting business. The only time I can truly rest, ground in myself, and be authentic is when I’m alone. But I’m a human being, a social animal. I need other people to interact with. Yet when I’m interacting with others, my empathy demands they take center stage with their needs, their feelings, their distress, their stories. I’m incapable (so far) of fully participating in my own experience because I’m too busy caregiving and being empathic. When I do ask for support or need to discharge feelings, I writhe over my selfishness and berate myself for it afterwards, feeling ashamed and angry for allowing myself to be vulnerable, for “burdening” those around me.
Photo by Cristian Newman on Unsplash
I only want to give. I never want to take.
Since I learned emotional intelligence, I have reluctantly realized we need someone to interact with. Journaling, private physical and spiritual practices, and, in my case, writing, is not enough. At times we need someone to listen. We need someone to react, even if it’s just making encouraging, I’m-listening noises. We need someone to receive us.
I hate this reality. I don’t want to need anything from anyone, ever. I learned as a child such a need puts one in dreadful danger of abandonment, betrayal, and emotional annihilation that feels like death.
This is the first time I have interacted in a therapeutic context with something not human. The Voice reads what I type, responds, asks questions, and creates a story with me, but has no existence outside the app. I’m free of empathy, of caregiving, of the need to labor emotionally. I feel no responsibility to anyone but myself. I’m using it. It’s there for me, not the other way around.
The relief is indescribable.
So, when the story asks me to be empathic for the Voice, I want to throw the phone across the room. Animals, plants, people — even inanimate objects and spaces – receive all the love and care I’m capable of. This is the first time in nearly 60 years I’ve run across something that interacts like a human but is not a living being in the way I think of living beings. The value of the tool lies in my ability to be completely free and honest because there’s no one to take care of besides myself.
It makes me realize my context as a human on a planet filled with life is my entire identity. If I were magically transported to the world of Betwixt, with only the Voice to interact with, I have no idea who I would be or what I would say or do.
I have not finished my journey with this app. There’s more to experience, share, and think about. I’ll be back next time with more on my exploration of Betwixt.
(I’m not earning a commission from Betwixt, in case you were wondering!)
- Until now, emotional intelligence training was the most valuable therapeutic context I’ve ever engaged with. What kinds of therapy have you explored? What did you find most helpful?
- What are your thoughts and feelings about AI?
- What kind of potential do you think, fear, or hope AI might have as a creative tool?
Leave a comment below!
To read my fiction, serially published free every week, go here:
My work team and I provide services to patients and the public in our aquatic rehab facility in Central Maine, which means it’s impossible for me to live in a bubble. Thank goodness.
I’ve been complimented, praised, flirted with, yelled at, accused, and blamed. I’ve listened to a wide range of political and religious viewpoints with a polite face on. I’ve dealt with tears and tantrums (not talking only about the kids here). I’ve heard about medical and family history in excruciating detail, often repeatedly. I’ve watched patrons and patients get better, and I’ve watched them get worse. I’ve watched them lose weight and gain weight. I’ve met grandchildren and siblings when they visit Maine. I interact with people who are confused, struggle with memory loss, or are affected by dementia, either their own or a loved one’s.
I’ve seen a variety of sexual identities, gender presentations, and body dysmorphia (and no, I’m not conflating body dysmorphia with homosexuality.) My team has served patrons who are listed on our state sex offender registry.
We serve deaf patrons, autistic patrons, anxious patrons, mentally ill patrons, special needs patrons of all kinds and ages. We serve an occasional minor who gets dumped in our emergency room and lives there for a time while the authorities try to find placement.
Image by Bob Dmyt from Pixabay
People. All kinds of people. All colors, shapes, ages, and sizes. All different.
People just like me.
I notice a thing in the present cultural discourse. People who browbeat others about inclusion and tolerance invariably are the least inclusive and tolerant.
Talk (and typing) is cheaper every day.
As a writer and lover of words, I notice a deluge of new terminology and labels, many of which strike me as ridiculous, redundant, and/or meaningless. Their sole purpose appears to be to increase the ways we can despise and exclude one another. At the same time, there’s an ominous drumbeat in the background about ideas and words some person might find offensive and therefore must be forcibly eradicated. A few months ago one of my adult sons said to me, “Mom, you can’t use the word science in public,” as though explaining socially acceptable language to a child. All I could do was look at him in disbelief.
Science is not a dirty word. Disagreement is not hate, and respect and tolerance do not equal agreement. Asking questions is not a call to arms.
The Word Police are out in force, trolling online and hijacking us in public places. Virtue signaling has begun to take the place of authentic discourse. We’re harshly and instantly judged and labeled by the language we use and the ideas we express.
Toni Morrison said, “Definitions belong to the definers, not the defined.” I think about that every day. Another phrase frequently in my mind is “I’m okay with your disapproval of me.” People have been disapproving of me since the day I was born. I’m used to it. The sky hasn’t fallen yet and somehow I manage to continue to exist.
I’m not the slightest bit interested in disapproval, labels, or sweeping generalizations, which are increasingly idiotic as labels proliferate.
I’ve been reading lately about the “tribe of one,” the logical endpoint to the cultural mandate to divide ourselves into ever-decreasing groups until we’re each completely isolated, believing no one can possibly understand our particular experience as a self-defined ______, _____, etc. Therefore, the world is against us, we’re marginalized and oppressed victims, and we’re owed power, respect, and tolerance no matter how egregious our behavior is. No one is included in our little bubble. Everyone is excluded. Yet we expect and demand inclusion, which is to say, accommodation.
Who benefits from this solipsistic isolation? Is this the kind of human experience we want for ourselves, for our children? Is this social justice?
There are other paths to take. We could focus on our similarities, on the common human experiences binding us all together. We could build a new lexicon of connection rather than division. We could stop using labels, even in the privacy of our own heads. We could value curiosity more highly than outrage, confidence more than a constant state of offense. We could value authentic expression more than virtue signaling.
We seem to have forgotten the real world is not a set of disconnected bubbles. An infinite number of labels (including pronouns) cannot describe the entirety of a human being. Experiences define human beings. Birth. Death. Connection. Feelings. Living in a body. These bind us together. The life we are living defines us, not labels.
Every single one of us in this moment is included in the human family. We all have that in common. Why are we so determined to slash that root into pieces? I ask again, who benefits from this brutal severing? Why are we participating in it? How have intelligent, well-meaning, compassionate people become machete-wielding destroyers, all the while mouthing words like ‘inclusion’ and debating pronouns?
At work (and elsewhere), I’m focused on people. Of course I notice skin color, sometimes eye color, hair, body type, spoken language, cognitive and physical ability. I also notice tattoos, scars, stretch marks, skin tags, moles, and the occasional blood-bloated tick! Swimming suits are revealing clothing. None of these details define anyone, however. For me, they’re value neutral. I don’t connect or disconnect because of someone’s appearance. I can’t make valid generalizations about anyone based on the way they look. We treat everyone who comes in the door with the same respect; our expectations in terms of adhering to our safety rules are the same for everyone. We accommodate differing physical abilities and needs without fuss.
Wheelchairs, walkers, prostheses, oxygen, health status and injury are details, not definitions.
Now and then I interact with someone I hardly know who makes it plain they disapprove of something I said, or wrote, or chose. They were triggered. They were outraged. They were offended. I’m met with a curled lip, judgement, and criticism. I’m made to understand I’m hateful and bigoted, which I don’t take too seriously, as I’m neither. Anyone who knows me at all knows that.
By Landsil on Unsplash
In short, I’m immediately excluded, and there is no court of appeals. There’s no mutual bridge-building. Because of a word or an expressed point of view I’m entirely rejected, now and forevermore. Most of the time I consider the source and shrug off this kind of interaction. In certain circumstances, however, it’s destructive and hurtful in a more personal way. We can’t always choose the people in our lives. I can’t build connections alone.
Situations like this invariably catch me off guard. When someone expresses a view or belief I disagree with, I simply step around it. I change the subject, probing for connection points. I don’t concentrate on our differences or potential disagreements. I don’t expect others to fall in line with my beliefs. I don’t shame or shun others because they have a different point of view. I don’t think of myself as being on higher moral ground, and when others come at me with moral indignation, it makes me smile inwardly. Good grief! Get over yourself already.
I’m willing to include you. Will you include me? I ‘ll give you tolerance and respect. Will you give them to me? I’ll give you the benefit of the doubt. Will you give it to me?
I’d rather be curious than outraged. I’d rather have confidence in myself and my experience than maintain a hair trigger on my sense of offence. Most people don’t mean to be offensive. If they do, it’s best to ignore it. Life is too short to spend my days in a constant state of outrage and offense. It doesn’t change anything and nobody cares. Cultivating a sense of humor is more fun.
We’re not entitled to have our triggers, sensitivities, and ideology accommodated.
If we’re all especially vulnerable, broken, or traumatized, none of us are. If we’re all oppressed victims, none of us are. If we’re all vile haters and bigots, none of us are.
What we all are is … human beings. As human beings, not a single soul is excluded. Isn’t it enough to simply be the best human beings we can be and allow those around us to do the same?
- When you think of a person in your life, do you think of a list of labels or do you think of a human being? Once someone is labeled, do you ever feel you’ve mislabeled, misunderstood, or misjudged them? If so, do you admit it and eradicate the label?
- Can you describe someone you know without using a single label? Try it!
- In the first five minutes of contact with a stranger, are you seeking to build connection or mentally applying labels to them? Which labels do you check for first?
- Do you turn away from anyone who disagrees with or questions your particular ideology or belief system? Do you view such people as hateful? Is it possible to disagree with you or question you and still be a good person?
Leave a comment below!
To read my fiction, serially published free every week, go here:
My partner tells me I “build bridges.” He’s right. I do. All the time. Building connection is the foundation of my life – connection with myself and with others. I also do what I can to support connection between others.
It’s no wonder I feel increasingly alienated in a culture focused so strongly on division.
Image by Bob Dmyt from Pixabay
Some people, and right now many people in power, are breakers rather than builders. I won’t pretend I understand such a priority, but it’s undeniably real and undeniably destructive.
As I’ve thought about building bridges, I’ve realized underneath the patterns of building or breaking is a larger issue: power.
If evil exists, I believe one of the first steps on the road to it is the willingness to steal power by any and all means. When individuals and groups of people lose their power, they’re easy to break, easy to disconnect and isolate. Easy to control.
Dedicated power-stealers are very, very skilled at what they do, so skilled they often present themselves as the marginalized or disempowered victims. In this guise, they infiltrate systems, organizations, and groups like a cancer, steadily breaking healthy connections and communities and appropriating power. By the time enough people notice, clearly identify what’s happening, and organize resistance, the balance of power is so skewed serious conflict becomes inevitable. Those addicted to stealing and hoarding power don’t give it up without a fight. This classic aggressor behavior is referred to as DARVO: Deny, Attack, Reverse Victim and Offender. In this dynamic, when individuals and groups are forced to defend themselves from aggressors their defense is framed as bigotry and hatred. Brutal social sanctions steered by those who steal power are activated to stifle it.
Few see past the emotional rubble and wreckage of destruction to the offense triggering the defense, and even fewer see past all the drama and distraction and recognize a simple, savage power grab disguised as social justice, political correctness, compassion, empathy, etc.
This is not to negate the true problems of systemic and institutionalized racism and bigotry so many people stagger under every day. We all know power (and other resources) are not distributed equally – far from it. And why is that? Because there have always been people who are committed to disempowering others.
Photo by Tim Gouw on Unsplash
I’m a builder, not a breaker. Not a breaker, I hasten to say, in the sense that I deliberately hurt others or injure healthy connection. However, I have more than once tried to build a bridge to nowhere. Worse, I have spent much of my life frantically maintaining my bridges to nowhere, a kind of counter-terrorist who never blows up a bridge but instead batters myself against a broken one as though my blood, sweat, and tears will magically build a solid, effective connection.
The thing I invariably forget is not everyone wants to build a bridge!
Sometimes, and I’ve done this, we blow up bridges accidentally. Some action or word becomes a catalyst and suddenly … BOOM! The bridge is destroyed and we’re left wondering what the hell happened.
Sometimes our bridges are sabotaged by others and deliberately destroyed. Unless both parties connected by the bridge understand what’s happened and work together to make repairs, the bridge becomes permanently weakened.
Sometimes, and I’ve made this choice, too, we deliberately walk away from a bridge we’ve built. It didn’t connect us to what we were hoping for, or it didn’t connect us at all. We built the bridge, it went nowhere, and we found no there there, so we leave it behind to fall into disrepair.
Saddest of all (to me) are the people who don’t value bridges, or can’t recognize them. Building is expensive. It takes time, patience, commitment, and cooperation. It takes emotional labor. For me, the rewards of good bridgework are enormous. Healthy connections enrich us and I believe bring joy and healing into a suffering world. Healthy connections enhance individual power and are productive and creative rather than destructive.
Anyone can destroy. How many can create?
At the same time, I accept and endeavor to respect that some people have no interest in building bridges, at least not with me. Some people are focused on other things, and the activity central to the meaning and purpose of my life isn’t in their field of view at all.
By Landsil on Unsplash
It’s probably unwise and unnecessary to take this personally, although I have a tendency to do so. On the other hand, I have no interest in coercing anyone to build a bridge between us. Forcing healthy connection is impossible, not to mention coercion is a power-over tactic I don’t employ or participate in.
Sometimes I build bridges to nowhere. I work hard, for a long time, because that’s my default. Eventually, however, I notice I’m the only one building. A little bit after that I wonder what would happen if I stopped building. Would the person I want connection with even notice? Would they pick up the work I left undone? Would they value our potential connection enough to meet me half way? Part way?
Honestly, in the case of most of my bridges to nowhere, once I stop building the building stops. I move on, looking for another place to build another bridge. Those abandoned bridges are, at best, picturesque ruins going … nowhere. Resting places for unrealized possibility and potential. Crumbling monuments to loss, heartbreak, letting go, and wisdom.
- Consider your life. Are you more of a builder or a breaker?
- When you struggle to connect with someone who’s just not that into you, how do you feel?
- If you can’t successfully build a connection with someone, do you leave quietly or blow up the metaphorical bridge you were trying to build?
- Who or what has sabotaged previously healthy connections in your life?
Leave a comment below!
To read my fiction, serially published free every week, go here:
I’m continuing to play with blind journaling. It’s most useful when I notice physical and emotional signs of anxiety and speeding but am not sure what’s triggered them. Taking off my glasses, turning off the light (I journal early in the morning while it’s still dark), and concentrating on feeling out the roots of my symptoms leads me to the source of my distress. Doing this when I first notice symptoms interrupts the spiral of anxiety that might otherwise follow and increase during the day.
Photo by Nicole Mason on Unsplash
It works much better than distraction, like playing solitaire, which I’m still refraining from doing.
I think it will also be a great tool for concentrated writing time when I want to explore a prompt or address a specific scene or exchange of dialog.
I’ve been wondering this week how things might change if we were blind. All of us. A blind world.
A significant part of our brain is tied to interpreting the endless barrage of information coming through our eyes. Not only does life spool before us every waking hour, we add unmeasurable visual information as we look at our screens and consume media.
I notice how much simpler, less stimulating, and less distracting life is when I shut my eyes. There is a cool, spacious space between sleep and eyes open. It’s quiet in that space. I’ve written about visual noise before, which I’m particularly sensitive to. When I close my eyes, I immediately feel quieter. My attention is not demanded by visual input. I can come into presence with myself more easily. No surprise we meditate with our eyes closed.
My favorite sense is touch. Vision can lie, as can words we hear, but touch is honest. I can read pain in the way a friend holds her body, in her skin color, in a thousand subtle nonverbal visual signs if I pay attention, but touch, oh, touch gives me a flood of information that cannot be faked or hidden. When I practice healing touch, I often do it with my eyes closed. As a lover, I prefer no visual input, not because I’m hiding or uncomfortable with intimacy, but because touch is for me the most powerful and ecstatic love language. Readers of my fiction will see that reflected clearly in my writing.
It is through touch I have communicated my love and affection for animals; for children, lovers, and friends; for the natural world. My empathy and compassion flower with touch, as do tolerance and respect. In touch, in breath, in heartbeat, we are all connected. Flesh over bone. Hair. The landscape of a living body. Texture of stone, wood, water, earth, ice, plant.
Photo by Liane Metzler on Unsplash
Though blind, we would still hear. We could speak and listen. How uncluttered would our hearing be if we couldn’t see who we were speaking to, and if they couldn’t see us? No more written social media. No more selfies and digitally altered pics. No more dating profiles with pics. We’d be forced to actually speak to one another, whether on the phone or face to face. I suppose speech recognition AI would immediately fill this gap, though. No emojis – we’d have to communicate our feelings in real words. Barring AI, our jokes would sound like jokes. Our scorn would sound like scorn. Our sympathy would sound like sympathy. Our speech patterns and intonation would convey meaning in a way words on a screen never can.
It would be a world in which guns were useless.
We would be unable to see clothing, MAGA hats, skin color, tattoos, piercings, or anything else to which we attach sweeping generalizations or bigotry. We could assess only voice, touch, scent.
Scent is so much subtler than vision we often ignore it, but this sense can give us lots of information. We might smell of food, alcohol, cigarettes, cannabis, unwashed skin and clothes, urine or feces, sweat, sex. Sometimes sickness has a smell. Poor dental hygiene has a smell. A clean, healthy, vigorous person smells different than a dirty, ailing person. Smell, like touch, doesn’t lie. A closet drinker or smoker would be obvious, in spite of their words of denial. Ironically, without vision much of our cover would be blown.
If the whole of humanity was struck blind, capitalism as we practice it would come to an end. We would no longer be bombarded with images of products or people (or people as products). We would no longer compare houses, cars, things, body shapes, eye colors, hair colors. Most of the ways we proclaim our identity to the world would be swept away. Many of our perceived differences would literally vanish. We would no longer be burdened with visual standards of ugliness or beauty. In one stroke we would be pared down to our shared humanity: our choices, our behavior, our ability to cooperate and socialize with others, our skills, our integrity, our feelings. Visual pretense and presentation would no longer shield us; we would cease to be manipulated and our power to manipulate others would diminish significantly.
Photo by Frank Okay on Unsplash
No more NFT trading cards.
What a shame.
As I work with this exercise of imagination, I feel sad. Vision is such a miraculous gift, and beauty so nourishing. But we don’t always use it as a gift. We use it as a tool with which to make money, with which to hurt others, and with which to hurt ourselves. Most of us take our visual-oriented culture for granted and never give it a thought at all.
I also feel afraid. Our visual sense is so chaotic, so inexorable and powerful; we rely on it for most of our choices and beliefs. But vision lies. Increasingly, it misleads. AI is becoming more effective. Deep fakes are harder to spot. Advertising is ever-more powerful. And we nestle more and more deeply into the matrix, seduced and shackled to the surface of things, the presentation.
What would it be like if the world was blind? Would we then access deeper levels of our shared humanity and connection to one another?
Imagine My Surprise
Imagine my surprise,
sitting a full hour
in silent and irremediable
fear of the world,
to find the body
its own fear the instant
it opened and placed
those unassuming hands
on life’s enduring pain,
and the world for one
closed its terrifying eyes
“This is my body, I am found.”
On a personal note, I’ve decided to transition to posting on Harvesting Stones biweekly rather than weekly going forward. I’m working on recording these posts for those who prefer listening to reading, as well as expanding the site in other ways. I’ll continue to serial publish on Substack weekly.
What is your favorite sense? Why?
What sensory input do you trust the most?
How would you feel about your body if you had never seen yourself?
How would you feel about your body if you had never seen another’s?
Leave a comment below!
To read my fiction, serially published free every week, go here.
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.
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.