≡ Menu

The Problem With Problems

The Problem with Problems

“The greatest and most important problems of life are all fundamentally insoluble. They can never be solved but only outgrown.” ~ Carl Jung

Most of us believe that if we have problems, there must be something terribly wrong, if not with the problematic person or situation, then perhaps with life in general.  Or maybe we think the reason we have problems is because we’re hopelessly flawed.  It must be something in our past, maybe family patterns. To make matters worse, nearly everyone harbors a dearly-held belief that “if only” I had that person, that job, fame, respect, money, love, (fill in the blank) – if only things were different, if only I were different – then things would be great. I wouldn’t have any more problems.

A Question:

Think of someone you admire. Someone like Martin Luther King Jr. or Mother Teresa.  Perhaps Nelson Mandela or Gandhi come to mind. Maybe it’s someone you know personally. Now ask yourself, do you think this person ever had problems?

Uh huh. I thought so.

Do you suppose the reason we admire such people is because of their courage in the face of serious challenges?

Unlike most of us, instead of avoiding problems, the people we tend to admire walked right toward them. And not just little ones either. They took on big problems like racism, imperialism, and providing loving care for the poor and dying. The scientists who developed the space program had lots of problems, as did Edison struggling to invent the electric light bulb. So do mothers, fathers, husbands and wives, teachers, and heroic people from every walk of life. Anybody who ever created anything worthwhile did so by embracing problems, not by running away from them. Once you understand this, you’ll agree that having problems isn’t the problem. The problem with problems is our resistance toward ever having them.

“As human beings, our greatness lies not so much in being able to remake the world – that is the myth of the atomic age – as in being able to remake ourselves.” ~ Mohandas Gandhi

I’m going to let you in on three big little secrets about problems:

Secret #1:
There is no situation in life that’s problem-free.

The first time I realized this it was very freeing. I was shocked, both at the truth of it but even more at how long I had labored under the infantile wish to reach the “promised land of no problems.”  To be honest I still sometimes dream of that promised land, but I no longer believe in it. Nor do I believe it would truly be desirable even if I could have it. Here’s why…

Secret #2:
The problem with most problems is that they aren’t very interesting.

I’m not saying your problems are trivial, but compared to most people, icons like Martin Luther King Jr., Mother Teresa and Gandhi took on some very complex and interesting problems.  You’ve probably heard the cliche about how the Chinese character for “crisis” also means “opportunity.” It’s true.  If you want an interesting life, take on some interesting problems. They don’t have to be big ones, or even important ones. Just interesting ones.

Want some inspiration? Check out Chris Guillebeau’s self-challenge to visit every country in the world within the next 2 years.  Oh, and he’s just thrown in a 50 state book tour of the US just to make it interesting. Read Leo Babauta’s story over at zenhabits.net.  Check out what Tammy & Logan are up to over at RowdyKittens where you can learn how to live without a car.  Or how Far Beyond the Stars’ Everett Bogue is building a thriving business and lives an excellent life with only 100 possessions. Imagine that!

Secret #3:
When you stop wasting energy on trying to avoid problems, you’ll automatically feel better.

In fact you’ll free up tons of energy to deal with interesting problems you choose to embrace. When you understand that problems are a normal part of living, you’ll be far less likely to mope around and may start enjoying the tasks at hand, even when they are difficult. You might even learn to smile in the face of adversity. That in itself would be a contribution to the greater good.

“Every time you smile at someone, it is an action of love, a gift to that person, a beautiful thing.” ~ Mother Teresa

Problems help move us forward

I enjoy looking up the original meanings of words. I find it interesting that the word “problem” is derived from the Greek, meaning literally “something thrown forward.” Maybe the Greeks meant to indicate an obstacle, but I prefer to believe they knew that problems are the force that throws us forward.  Instead of holding us back, our problems are designed to help us grow. I really like that idea.

Here are the modern definitions of “problem” according to Webster:

1.a. a question raised for inquiry, consideration, or solution
1. b. a proposition in mathematics or physics stating something to be done (italics mine)
2. a. an intricate, unsettled question
2. b. a source of perplexity or vexation (This is my least favorite, so I’m glad it’s last.)
Synonym see MYSTERY.

I love that it says the synonym for problem is mystery.

The dictionary doesn’t get much better than that.

Photo Credit

Related Posts:
How to Hack Your Personal Storybook
The Magic of Seeing Something in a New Way
Is Fear of Failure Holding You Back?

{ 10 comments… add one }
  • Hi Linda! Great topic since we all seem to have problems.

    I like to see my “problems” as opportunities for growth since with each problem there must be a lesson to be learned. Instead of focusing on what is wrong, I prefer to focus on how to resolve it. I usually realize the problem is mostly related to how I’m perceiving things. Once I change my perception of the situation, the problem most likely is not a problem anymore. In the end, it’s all relative, right?

    Therefore, I love how you end your post with the idea that problems move us forward. That pretty much sums it up for me.

    Thanks for sharing your views and your secrets. Loving blessings!
    .-= Andrea DeBell – britetalk´s last blog ..How to Shamelessly Love Your Bank Balance =-.

    • Linda Gabriel

      Greetings Andrea! Love the point you make about shifting your focus to opportunities for growth.

  • Linda,

    I absolutely love this post on problems. It’s a fresh perspective. I love the mystery aspect also and love that mystery exists.

    A great approach to embracing the reality of problems.

    Warm regards,
    .-= Lauren´s last blog ..Join The Circle of Fun Acts of Kindness =-.

    • Linda Gabriel

      Hi Lauren,
      Yes, I love that part about mystery too. Thanks for stopping by!

  • You are right wonderful Post! Great work!

  • “So many people from other parts of the world would gladly trade for our “problems!”

    Absolutely! Now, don’t send me off on a guilt trip! To imagine that our “problems” are just ours though would be to ignore the fact that at this point they are most decidedly world problems. I believe we have always all been connected, but at this point it is indisputable from an economic and environmental perspective that we are all connected. But that is no doubt another topic, for another day, compared to personal “problems”.

  • Linda Gabriel

    Welcome Alison! Yes, the “problems in the west” could be quite a subject for inquiry. So many people from other parts of the world would gladly trade for our “problems!”

    I love the point you raise about how society socializes kids to conform then rewarding adults who don’t! By definition an innovator is a non-conformist!

  • This is fascinating stuff Linda. You just got yourself a new reader!

    I’m all for interesting problems (who cares about how to be more efficient at doing the laundry, or some such mundane thing). I love how most of the definitions of problem suggest that they are a prelude to action.

    I suspect that one of today’s problems in the west is that we’ve become so used to being inactive and disengaged. Adults often prefer inactive, quiet, obedient kids, yet somehow expect that to translate into adults who go on to do great things.

    It makes you think!

  • Linda,
    I love the quote from Carl Jung. Wonderful! Life is about growth, and growth requires facing and overcoming challenges – the sooner we accept that the happier we’ll be. When a person has life too easy – they never develop the character, or back bone, to deal with difficult situations. They just melt into a puddle, or expect someone else to come rescue them when serious bumps in the road arise. I do believe individuals who experience a lot of internal friction through having to deal with stressful life challenges ultimately adapt by developing and growing into the most motivated and successful people.

    • Linda Gabriel

      I like the Jung quote too. It’s often shortened to “Our problems can’t be solved but only outgrown,” which still leaves room for the hope that when we “outgrow our problems” we won’t have any more problems! It was so freeing when I realized there are always going to be problems no matter what situation, and that wasn’t necessarily a bad thing. In fact it’s fun to tackle interesting problems because it stimulates our creativity and ingenuity. “Necessity is the Mother of Invention.”

      Motivation is another subject. Yes, many people who have dealt with difficult challenges go on to be motivated successful people, but many don’t. A big reason I’m writing Thought Medicine is to determine what’s different about the one’s who are able to deal with serious challenges in positive ways. It usually comes down to their explanatory style and their thoughts.

Leave a Comment