Stay with the problem

Earlier this summer, the NPR program Invisibilia broadcasted, "The Problem with Solutions." Invisibilia is one of my favorite podcasts about human behavior, and this particular episode offered an invitation, at its heart, to consider the possibility of accepting problems.

Yes, accepting them. Accepting them for what they are, instead of trying to fix them or make them disappear. Accepting also the people who, in our eyes, appear to have problems.

The main story focused on a small town in Belgium, Geel, which for centuries has embraced people with mental illnesses. It's a tradition connected to the town's patron saint, 
Dymphna, who during her life in the 7th century devoted herself to serving the mentally disabled. The custom began during the Middle Ages when the town became a pilgrimage site. To this day, though, the inhabitants of Geel accept the mentally disabled into their homes as boarders. They do not seek to cure. They accept them for who they are and care for them. They have found that through this integration - on the farm, in the house - the "problems" we imagine can fade away. There is nothing and no one that needs to change. The preferred treatment is no treatment. There is nothing to fix.

That's powerful stuff. It seems counter-intuitive, doesn't it? Scary even! We all want solutions. We don't like problems. We want to fix things. We want to fix people. We want to fix our selves.

Let's stay with fixing the self. The self that, our good fortune, is not mentally disabled, but that we judge so harshly nevertheless. Maybe even more so. The fix-the-self habit fosters a self-improvement industry that was valued at $9.1 billion in 2012 (and that includes coaching revenues). Americans warm up at the thought of a challenge. We have a can-do attitude. But opinions vary on the effectiveness of self-improvement programs. Many, like the Invisibilia folks, question our fixation on fixing folks.

Why is it sometimes better to accept problems and problem selves just as they are? It's simple: Our problems hold our solutions. When you fix problems without first accessing the solutions , you are applying a band-aid and hiding what is true. The band-aid can do a lot of damage. Quick-fix solutions crowd out inner knowledge. Quick-fix solutions do not engage the multitudes that we are, and are therefore bound to fail. Most importantly, they mask and suppress our assets and strengths. 

Acceptance is more effective than problem solving in unexpected ways. Some tech companies now hire those with autism, not because of community duty or charity, but because they have skills and strengths that are enormous assets to the companies. The German software company SAP is one example. 

Staying with the problem. Long enough for truths to emerge. Long enough for whole and full engagement with all that makes you and me human beings, fully aligned. Within this wholeness, real problem solving begins. Compassion rises and grows. 

Staying with the problem. Even though you hurt. Even though you deeply care and want to make the hurt vanish. It is not easy. But human beings can live with the negative. We can explore the solutions that slowly emerge to lift us to a next level. We can explore what our bodies tell us in this spacious silence, and what our hearts want us to know. 

Can you give yourself or others time and space to be with their problems? Can you move in a space beyond words, where a fix is not needed? Can you listen? Until all of you feels wholly aligned? With your self and with those who think or act differently from you? From there, you can find out what goals you would like to work on. What you dream of. 

Self-improvement does work. Supporting others works. Life works. Of this I am convinced. But not in the ordinary way we understand these terms. We are not broken. We are already whole. There is nothing that needs fixing. Our habits and behaviors that no longer serve us? Sure, we can become aware of them and make new choices for new behaviors. But there is nothing to fix. We are all right! It starts with being with the problem, just as it is, being with a deeper truth. Sometimes that takes patience. Listening deeply.

Investigate, be curious. You'll make better choices for what is already whole. We can let things be what they are precisely because we deeply care. We can sit on a terrace with a cup of coffee or tea and watch the world with its problems go by: It is a colorful world.


Ready to learn more?

More about Geel in Belgium: Read this NPR story
More about hiring those with autism: Read this Huffington Post story


If you enjoyed this post, consider subscribing to my blog to receive future posts with interviews, tips, tools, research, and ideas to inspire and motivate. Or contact me for more information about coaching. Thank you. Sophia.