On trying to solve problems

When faced with a problem, our instinct is to offer a solution. But sometimes it can be wiser to resist this instinct.

On trying to solve problems

I’ve started going to the gym again and the DOMS (that’s what us athletes call post-exercise stiffness) is killing me. The other day, 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 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 an important distinction). When someone tells us they have a problem, our instinct is generally to offer solutions. Over time, though, I started noticing that sometimes I would be upset about something and Nora would offer a solution, and it didn’t help at all; on the contrary, it often made me more upset. And it was exactly the same the other way around.

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. And often, what they really want - definitely what I really want - isn’t a solution to their problem. Rather, what they want is the feeling that their situation is being taken seriously, that their pain matters, that the other person cares and understands.

So for example, 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. Their natural instinct to immediately offer a solution prevented them from addressing or even seeing the real issue.

In a recent essay, I talked about the challenge of living in a state of insecurity; the challenge of maintaining that state of insecurity instead of slipping into easy dogmatism. And what I've been talking about today is really the same thing from another angle - the urge to offer solutions is the urge to move away from discomfort, it is the urge to find something neat and tidy that eliminates the messiness of life.

As always, the idea is not: don't offer solutions! The idea is rather: sometimes, the urge to offer solutions is itself part of the problem, and wisdom may consist of knowing when this is the case.

But what to do instead of offering solutions? The German poet Rilke had a suggestion:

I want to beg you, as much as I can, dear sir, to be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and to try to love the the questions themselves like locked rooms and like books that are written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to love everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer. Perhaps you do carry within yourself the possibility of shaping and forming as a particularly happy and pure way of living; train yourself to it - but take whatever comes with great trust, and if only it comes out of your own will, out of some need of your inmost being, take it upon yourself and hate nothing.

Later on, writing to the same young man to whom he had written those words, Rilke writes,

Do not believe that he who seeks to comfort you lives untroubled amoung the simple and quiet words that sometimes do you good. His life has much difficulty and sadness and remains far behind yours. Were it otherwise he would never have been able to find those words.