In which I stop trying to solve my problem

In which I stop trying to solve my problem

Like some odd and very painful boomerang, my crisis of meaning kept returning.


Chapter 1: In which I stop trying to solve my problem

I’d put on 10 kilos in the last six weeks, and I wasn’t really built for speed to begin with. This can happen when you go back home and home is an Indian mother; when you go back to a cuisine which knows what spices are and isn’t afraid to use them, to a culture where love is expressed through food and feeding.

‘Let me have men about me who are fat,’ says Caesar, but the ladies of Tinder seemed to disagree. And though I knew, of course, that abs are made in the kitchen, I’m an all-or-nothing kinda guy, and I couldn’t just change my diet, I have to also exercise.

So I started going to the gym and the DOMS (that’s what us athletes call post-exercise stiffness) was killing me. When I came out to the veranda of my parents’ home for our ritual morning coffee, I was walking strangely, arching my legs outwards and letting my back lower. When I sat down, I groaned.

What’s wrong, they asked?

How long have you got, I thought? But, judging that they did not want a report of my benighted soul a la St. Augustine, I restricted myself to telling them that my calves hurt.

Do yoga, it’ll really help, said my Mum (she’s done yoga 3 times a week for the last 20 years).

Go for a walk, it’ll really help, said my Dad (he’s walked an hour every day for the last 20 years).

I looked at them, without heat but severely, and took a sip of coffee.

I’m telling you, said my Dad.

I groaned again.

My mum demonstrated asanas from her chair.

Guys, I said. Come on. I don’t need this. What I need from you is to say, aww, you poor thing, it must be terrible. You’re an amazing son and we love you. That’s what I need right now.

I learned that from Nora; or maybe, as with many things, we learned it together (learning-from versus learning-with is a very important distinction). Most of the time, when people tell you about a problem they’re having, the last thing they want is to hear you tell them what they should do about it.

For a start, advice is implicitly an expression of superiority. And most of the time it’s redundant anyway – most problems have perfectly simple solutions (which is not the same as solutions that are easy, sadly). People usually know themselves, much better than you could, what they should do.

More importantly, the instinct to immediately offer a solution can prevent you from addressing or even seeing the real issue. When I told my parents that my calves were hurting, the real problem was not how to make my calves feel better. The real issue was that I was grumpy and aching and wanted sympathy.

That’s often the real issue, in my experience. What people really want – definitely what I really want – isn’t a solution to their problem. Rather, what we want is the feeling that our situation is being taken seriously, that our pain matters, that the other person cares and is trying to understand.

In the rush to fix a problem, in other words, we often actually misunderstand the problem. And a good symptom of having misunderstood a problem is when, no matter what you try as a solution, it keeps coming back.

Like some odd and very painful boomerang, my crisis of meaning kept returning.

I had searched theoretically, reading philosophers, theologians, novelists, texts allegedly dictated by God … I read all kinds of things, to see if I could find something that told me what really mattered, something that soothed the demon who whispered that nothing did. I had searched practically, either by flinging myself into different activities, hoping that through the activity I would find the thing that mattered, or by attempting to have a certain kind of experience, one in which it was undeniably revealed to me that something did matter, or that God existed, etc.

I found no solutions that I could sustain. I could, sometimes, ignore my worry that everything was pointless, I could sometimes be distracted from it, I could sometimes even feel that I had found the things that mattered. But nothing stuck. Always the demon came back.

It was time, I thought, to examine the demon directly instead of trying to conjure him away. Instead of looking for the answer, let’s look at the question. Instead of trying to find the meaning of life, let’s try to figure what the crisis of meaning is about. Let’s forget all about possible solutions. Instead, let’s just try to understand the problem.

The necessary first step to understanding is simply describing it as it occurs in experience, both mine and other people's. So that's what we're going to do in the next chapter.