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Jun 24
Friday

The Problem with Problems

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By Judy Lief

As we go through life, we face many joys and discoveries and many problems and difficulties. We have continual ups and downs. Over time, most of us go through economic upturns and downturns, health ups and downs, relationship ups and downs—all sorts of ups and downs. As we are tossed about, we are gradually toughened and refined, like rocks tumbled in a stream. The more obstacles we encounter and manage to survive and overcome, the stronger we become. On the path of dharma, we are encouraged to view difficulties as opportunities for awakening, not simply as roadblocks. The combination of study and meditative training gives us tools to work with what arises as it arises, whether good or bad, happy or sad. But the more we increase our ability to deal with our own obstacles, the more we become painfully aware that we may not be able to help others—our family, our friends, people in our communities—who are struggling in similar ways.

In this world of duality, every experience has its shadow. The wish that others may be happy and not suffer is marked by the fact that at times we can help, but many times we cannot. When we are faced with suffering, and we cannot fix it, what do we do with that recognition? How do we cultivate acceptance rather than despair, anger, and frustration? Although times are tough, we may have a way of working with hardships, but we cannot always say the same about those we care about. We may struggle and it may not be easy, but we have some degree of control, and when we make mistakes we can learn from them. Having gone through difficulties before, and somehow come through them, we may feel fairly confident that we can once again see our way through. What we have to work with is close at hand: our own mind, our own emotions, our own body, our own blockages and hesitations. We know what we are dealing with, and we can draw on what we have learned by facing similar problems in the past. But we have no control over other people. Although we want the best for our family, for the people we love, we cannot just make it happen. We are helpless. We can be strong for others, but we cannot make others strong.

The struggles of people we care about can be harder to face than our own difficulties. It is not uncommon, for instance, for a dying person who has come to terms with their own mortality to still be in great distress because they are worried that their family or loved ones do not have the inner resources to face up to what is happening. You recognize that your family is caught up in fear and anguish, pain and confusion—and there is nothing you can do about it. The fact that you are aware of your own situation and are dealing with it as best you can does not help. In some ways, that even makes things worse, because you see the contrast. You can work with your own situation but cannot protect the people around you or remove their confusion. And much as you might like to do so, you cannot simply transfer your understanding to others. So in addition to facing the pain of dying, you suffer from the frustration of not being able to help those you love, no matter what you yourself have learned. It is so lonely to know what is going on and be unable to fix it. But you cannot walk the path of another, and another cannot walk the path for you. The reality is that each of us is a traveler, and we travel utterly alone.

This pattern repeats itself in many contexts. In the current economic climate, many people have lost their jobs or are afraid they might. Money is tight and prospects are dim. Savings are disappearing and investments tanking. It is a time of belt-tightening, constriction, doing without, in which many people are cutting back on their expenses—those lucky enough to have expenses beyond the bare necessities. If you have lived through economic booms and busts before, you may be pretty sure that you can weather another round of tightened circumstances and uncertainty. In my own life I have experienced many different economic conditions, and I am grateful for that, I’ve lived on food stamps and unemployment and I’ve lived as a middle-class homeowner. Because I’ve experienced these extremes, I know I can adjust to both times of poverty and times of economic well-being.

It is empowering to face poverty and loss and find yourself not destroyed but strengthened by the experience. But even if you are able to weather changes in your own health or your economic situation, that is not enough. What about your children? What about your friends? How do you deal with the pain of others? You see so many people struggling just to cover their basic needs and support their families—working to the point of exhaustion, never being able to save a cent, and seeing no end in sight. You see people beaten down by the pressure of trying so hard to succeed, but not getting anywhere other than deeper in debt. How do you not feel despair?

You may be worried about your own children, wondering whether they will ever escape from living paycheck to paycheck, barely scraping by. You worry that they may never reach the same standard of living as you have, no matter how diligent and hardworking they may be. The desire to see your children flourish comes up against the harsh reality that you cannot make it happen. You want to help, but your own resources may be limited. And even if you have resources, it can be really hard to know what is truly helpful. It is like the story of a child who comes upon a chrysalis, and touched by the struggling of the moth inside, decides to help it break out. But when the child pulls open the covering, the moth dies. Because the moth did not have to fight to break free, its wings were unable to strengthen and mature, so it could not survive. Blindly trying to solve things may only make them worse.

As you look beyond your own family and friends and your own immediate situation, you see that there are endless problems, endless issues, endless crises. There will always be something to obsess about, always be someone to worry about, always a reason to give up in the face of the futility over making things right. The thought loop of troubles and possible troubles, future troubles and remembered troubles, can take over your mind without interruption or relief. And the more you are captured by such thinking, the more frozen you feel.

Such worrying feeds on itself. It is a self-perpetuating trap. We can become so absorbed in frightening future scenarios that we lose touch with what we are experiencing here and now. Worry can have the perverse quality of making us feel righteous that we care so deeply—and we do not take responsibility for our worrying, but we conveniently blame it on others. Worrying about a person may show them we care, but it also conveys to them our sense of superiority and our lack of trust in their ability to handle their life. With worry, instead of recognizing our frustration at the limits of our power to help, we convert it into an incessant inner mental drone of thinking and anxiety. We are obsessed with all we cannot do, with thoughts of powerlessness. It becomes overwhelming and we do not know how to dig our way out.

Instead of piling up all the problems we cannot solve one on the other until we have a giant mountain of impossibility, we could take another approach. In working with people and their problems, we could accept that those problems might never be solved. The other person may or may not be able to deal with their situation and we may or may not be able to help them. That is the reality and we need to accept that. No amount of worrying is going to change that.

It is difficult to be with a loved one who is unhappy and suffering, and it is tempting to want to save the day and make everything better. We want their pain to go away—and we are uncomfortable with our own pain as well. That ground of mutual pain and rawness is an intensely claustrophobic and forbidding territory to explore. Rather than looking into it, we would like to get out of it, to fix it. But we need to examine that notion of “fixing,” particularly the idea of fixing others. We need to question our concepts about how we want things to be and what we want people to become.

If we can let go of some of that, we will see more clearly what we can and cannot do. We can learn not to obsess about all the problems we cannot solve, but to sort through them to find the one or two things we can actually do that might be helpful. It is better to do one small helpful thing than punish yourself for the many things beyond your power and ability to change or affect. Some problems can be solved, some cannot, and some are best left unsolved.

Shantideva, the great Indian teacher of the Mahayana Buddhist tradition, said that if we could do something positive we should just do it. So why worry? He said that if we cannot do something about a problem, we should accept that. So why worry? The trick is to keep it simple—either do something or don’t.

As we grow and develop and learn from our experience, we are more likely to be able to help people who are struggling more than we are. We can learn when to help and when to step back, and we can see other people grow, as we have, through struggle and hardship. However, although we can prepare ourselves to face tough times, we have no real control over others. We can support the people we love and worry about, but we cannot solve their problems for them—and neither can anyone solve our problems for us. But we can be together with those we love, problems unsolved. Although each of us must face our own individual journey through life alone, we can travel together, bound by love.

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Originally published on Lion’s Roar on July 15, 2021.

About Judy Lief

Judy Lief is a Buddhist teacher and the editor of many books of teachings by the late Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche. She is the author of Making Friends with Death. Her teachings and new podcast, “Dharma Glimpses,” are available at judylief.com.

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