I recently read an article from The Minimalists about problems and solutions. The first time I skimmed through it, I thought, “Huh?” and saved it for more concentrated exploration later. It was one of those pieces of inside-out thinking that stuck in my head, like a small rock in one’s shoe, and I puzzled over it for a few days, until I went back and read it with more attention.
I laughed when I reread, because it’s a short and simple piece, but it suggests an unaccustomed way of thinking about problems, especially to someone as goal-oriented and problem-solving as I am.
The idea is solutions, the magic bullets everyone wants, take our attention away from problems and often compound them. The solution becomes more of a problem than the problem was in the first place.
This phenomenon is familiar enough to us that we made a saying about the cure being worse than the disease. I just never thought past the context of cures and disease before now.
When it comes to solving problems, especially in a consumer culture, toxic mimics are ubiquitous. We’re also in a hurry. We don’t like discomfort. We want a quick, palatable fix, and we want it now. This means we throw solutions at problems without taking the time to understand their full extent and complexity. We feel entitled to instant gratification, and that’s what advertisers promise us.
In the last few cold, dark days of 2020, as most of us look ahead and hope for better things in 2021, it’s a good time to pause and spend time with our problems.
Seriously! They’re with us anyway. We might as well give them some real attention. If we’ve tried and tried to solve a particular problem and gotten nowhere, or made it worse, maybe it’s time to go deeper into it, putting possible solutions aside for a while and just being with the problem. Rainer Maria Rilke wrote about loving and living with the questions before living into the answers.
In a lovely demonstration of synchronicity, as I work on this post I’m also reading Holistic Management by Allan Savory. It’s essentially a book about restoring the environment, based on a lifetime of study, experience and success in reversing desertification and building healthy land, but it’s also a framework for decision-making and management of any context, from a household to a community to a business organization.
Defining and understanding as much of the problem as possible is key to managing anything holistically. The metaphor Savory uses is taking aspirin to relieve a headache brought on by someone hitting us in the head with a hammer. Taking an aspirin is quick and cheap, but the real problem is not the headache, it’s the fact that someone is hitting us in the head with a hammer! Taking aspirin does not address the real problem.
This is a simple metaphor, but it’s surprising how often we respond in just this way to the symptoms of problems rather than excavating the root causes and addressing those, which often involves time, patience, learning new information and creating entirely different ways of responding and utilizing resources.
Perhaps this year we could make a different kind of New Year’s Resolution list.
If we have financial problems, instead of trying to figure out how to make more money, we could investigate our relationship with money.
If we have weight problems, instead of trying a diet, we could explore our relationship with food.
If we don’t get enough exercise, instead of buying an expensive piece of home equipment (which I hear make great laundry racks and/or clothing storage), we could take a look at our ability to keep our word to ourselves and our willingness (or not) to self-care.
If we feel disorganized and overwhelmed with our stuff, instead of buying storage space, organizing systems, or looking for a bigger house, we could simplify our lives and shed some stuff.
If we’re lonely and searching for romance, instead of spending time and money on dating platforms, we could strengthen our relationship with ourselves, learn how to meet our own needs, and take a look at our expectations of relationships.
I’ve always thought of problem-solving as a strength, with the emphasis on solving problems. I’m only now realizing the power of simply experiencing problems, patiently and fully, even affectionately, before racing to a solution and applying it as quickly as possible. Could there be more power in the problem than in the solution, at least in the beginning of problem-solving? That possibility makes me smile.
So, here’s a question. What does a happy person look like? Out in the world, how do we pick out the happy ones from the sad ones? Do we look happy to other people?
This morning my partner and I sat in the sun at the breakfast table after we finished eating. We eat in front of a big window with a southern exposure. Outside the window is our bird feeder station. I had a mug of hot tea between my palms. Our big brown tabby, Oz, was stretched out on the table in the sun within touching distance, should we care to pay homage to his gleaming coat and superior self. After a luxurious stretch, during which he lengthened by six inches, his paw was in close proximity to my water. It was a coincidence, entirely innocent. Ozzy would never dream of knocking over a drink. He was merely sunbathing.
I was warm and had a stomach full of good food. I felt peaceful and content. Happy. I sat with my eyes closed and my hand on my water glass, soaking up the sun and the silent, relaxed presence of my two companions.
In those moments I was consciously happy. I was not laughing, talking, taking a selfie, dressed up, made up, or sitting in an elegant, expensive home. One of the panes of glass in that window is broken from snow sliding off the roof. The table we eat at used to be a workshop table and is stained, scarred, and pitted.
One of my best friends, who is also a reader of this blog, remarked a couple of days ago that happy doesn’t look the same on everyone.
I’ve written about pseudo self before, our propensity to build a careful façade to display to the world. Everything about advertising and many aspects of social media set us up to believe toxic mimics for happiness are the real thing.
Even I, who don’t watch TV and am not on social media, couldn’t have defined happiness before I started reading Authentic Happiness by Martin Seligman, Ph.D., and writing this series. I knew what happiness was supposed to look like, though. It’s bright and colorful. Attractive, animated, healthy-looking, well-groomed people smile and laugh. Every relationship is obviously loving, tender, exciting. Animals and children are adorable. Food, diamonds, cars, and clothing are gorgeous and enticing.
Except the “happiness” displayed on our screens is like the romance displayed on our screens. It’s not real. It’s a seductive, carefully created fantasy, unattainable and unrealistic. It’s for-profit entertainment and manipulation. It’s a laugh track.
The ingredients of happiness are not on a screen. Or in a mirror. Or in a closet, basement, attic, garage, store, or storage unit.
We experience different intensities of feelings, and we differ in our ability and willingness to express those feelings. Someone who feels ecstatic happiness may indeed demonstrate ecstasy, but not necessarily. Some feel deeply and intensely, but do not communicate their experience to onlookers. A person who communicates rapture may not be any happier than one who expresses harmony and relaxation.
On the other hand, and social media teaches us this, some people work very hard on a happy façade but are in truth deeply unhappy.
My own experience of happiness is frequently subtle. Peace and contentment are dove grey, not neon orange.
Are we losing our ability to see and value the subtleties in life, the understated, the quiet, the neutral colors, the silence and spaces between action, stimulation, events and possessions?
Have we forgotten happiness can be found in a few humble, unextraordinary, unrecorded minutes in the sun at a scarred table with loved ones after breakfast?
If we asked the people in our lives about their perception of happiness — their own and ours — what would they say? Is there a gap between our own experience of happiness and the way others perceive us? If so, why? Is the confusion in our expression or their perception? When we long for those we love to be happy, what do we mean?
Happiness is not one size fits all. It doesn’t look the same, sound the same or feel the same for everyone. Before we decide we ourselves or others are unhappy, it’s useful to remember that. Perhaps we’re happier than we realize, even though our lives don’t look like a movie or a popular and carefully created Facebook or Instagram account.
Here in Maine we occasionally have long days of rain mixed with snow, especially this time of year. The sky is dark and sodden, pressing all the light out of the day. It’s foggy, icy, cold and wet. I have a pair of rubber-ducky yellow boots I wear on such days. They’re ridiculously bright and cheerful. I wore them into work recently, and one of my coworkers remarked on them. I told him I love them because they make me smile.
He said they made him smile, too. And he did.
My yellow boots give me happiness, and I even get to share it.
In the old tales, young women are sent on dangerous quests that involve learning to sort one thing from another. One such teacher is Baba Yaga, about whom I’ve written previously. Baba Yaga is a crone, and when she can be bothered, she teaches too-sweet maidens how to sort poppy seeds from dirt, how to cleanse, and how to cook.
This is to be understood metaphorically, rather than as a statement of appropriate gender roles. Take a deep breath, all you feminists!
The idea of discernment, or the ability to tell one thing from another, is essential to living effectively, and, much like restraint, we are losing touch with it in today’s world.
Sorting poppy seeds from dirt, or wheat from chaff, or mildewed kernels from wholesome corn, is not something technology can help us do. It doesn’t require equipment, money, strength, or a college education.
It’s a hopeless task, of course, to sort poppy seeds from a pile of dirt in one night with no light and no help, but in stories it’s a task that must be done if the maiden wants to live. Usually a magical animal or some other helper arrives; symbols of the maiden’s intuition, kindness or compassion. Interestingly, the maiden often sleeps while the helper(s) accomplish the task.
Metaphorically, this indicates that our civilized, rational, logical intellect must step out of the way and allow creativity, faith and intuition to guide us. Fairytales and oral tradition map our subconscious, our shadow, our deepest and oldest foundations, the places where our primal wisdom lies. Sorting one thing from another takes time and close examination. Discernment involves our senses and our feelings as well as our intellect. It demands our consent to peer closely, and accept what we see. It can’t be done in the presence of denial. Fear clouds discernment, as do distraction, an unwillingness to be wrong, ideology, and an inability to think critically. Gaslighting, projection, distortion and deflection all work actively against our ability to see things clearly. Those who are unwilling to venture into terra incognita are unable to practice discernment, which involves learning and adaptation.
Modern life doesn’t require us to sort poppy seeds from dirt, but here are some places in which discernment is vital:
Differentiating between truth and lies
Distinguishing between friends and not-friends
Recognizing the difference between power-with and power-over
Realizing the difference between our beliefs and needs and those of others
Differentiating between love and abuse, or love and control
Distinguishing between kindness and enabling
Realizing the difference between useless and useful
Knowing the difference between what makes life easier and what makes it harder (simplicity and complication)
Understanding where our power is and where it is not
Noticing differences between words and actions (major red flag)
Differentiating between our own ghosts, struggles and wounds and those of others; in other words, do we take it all personally or blame it all on others?
Knowing the difference between our authentic selves and our pseudo selves
Recognizing the difference between what truly makes us happy and what the culture insists should make us happy
Discernment is not prejudice, hate or bigotry. The ability to tell one thing from another is a basic skill. I remember watching Sesame Street in the 60s when I was a child: “One of these things is not like the others. One of these things doesn’t belong.“
In this era of “alternative facts” and postmodernism, our ability to discern is taking a beating, and those of us who persist in attempting to clearly see and understand our world, ourselves, and others are often targeted on social media. Interesting, that a skill four and five-year-olds can learn is becoming demonized.