One recent morning, not long before the alarm went off, the bed where my wife and I were sleeping crashed. Years ago, we put the bed frame on risers to create more room underneath for storage. This arrangement worked just fine until 6:30 on a Sunday morning when the one holding up the top corner broke. The center collapsed and the bed fell three of four inches with a loud bang. That was the end of our night’s sleep.
Later, I mentioned to my wife that I thought we had spare risers somewhere.
“The last time I saw them,” she said “they were in the upstairs closet.”
I looked. They were not in the upstairs closet.
Though I was eager to get this problem remedied before time to go to bed, my efforts were frustrated. I tried to think of some alternative means of solving the problem. I remembered a couple of bricks we had outside. I thought I could put those under the leg once held by the now broken riser. I assembled the bricks and went to the basement to do yet another chore.
While in the basement, I stumbled, by chance, onto the spare risers. I replaced the broken one and the bed once again seems stable.
I write all this not merely to recount for you the trivial occurrences of a regular day, but to illustrate a truth most people never consciously grasp: life is just one problem after another.
Think about it. Really think about the texture of life, what a normal day feels like, and you’ll soon see I’m right.
People say life is difficult. People say life isn’t fair. But, hardly anyone ever points out that the daily, minute by minute process of living is just an unceasing avalanche of problems.
Granted, not every problem is large or all-consuming. Most aren’t. Most are at the level of needing to replace one of the risers under the bed or needing to get to the post office before closing, or forgetting and leaving something you need in the car. The point is that problems, even these little ones, form the constant background noise of our every minute of our lives.
This is true even for those who try hardest to escape the facts. Imagine you did nothing but lie in bed all day, everyday. You’d be comfortable at first, but you’d quickly run into problems. You’d get too warm under the covers. You’d need to use the bathroom. You’d get lonely, hungry and bored. You’d start to feel that your life lying in bed was unfulfilling. You’d start to wonder what you were missing. As soon as you made any move to solve any of those problems, you know what you’d encounter? More problems.
A lot of people now can’t see the reality that our lives are a series of problems. I recently took our computer to the Apple store to be repaired. While the machine was being fixed, I looked around at the mall. Every image on display there was an image of a world without problems. Same with daytime television and on and on. We live our lives submerged in a world of mediated images where nothing is a problem.
Well, that’s a problem. It’s easy to see how, if you’re the kind of person who believes the messages sent by advertisers and the brahmins of popular culture (and we all are to some extent) you’d come to think not having problems was normal. You’d come to imagine that the fantasy world of posters and commercials and cheap tv was the real world.
This is where most people are now. Most people are caught between the reality that their daily lives are nothing but a long string of problems to solve, and the message that everybody else has no problems. The result is that the natural problems of living they experience, which are completely normal, become a source of either shame or resentment.
The weight of this shame makes people less nimble at actually solving problems. It’s hard to be creative under such a burden. Asking for help becomes more daunting. People isolate themselves hoping to manage the problems they believe they shouldn’t have by hiding them, by pursuing an “out of sight, out of mind” strategy for success. The results of the mass adoption of this approach are easily seen.
Perhaps, more often, the dissonance between what we experience to be the reality of life and what we are told should be real makes people resentful. They have come to believe someone owes them the problem free life they’ve seen advertised. Everyone else, they believe, has it easy. It is only they who have it rough. Their sense of entitlement grows. The results of the mass adoption of this approach are also easily seen.
The solution is to remind ourselves daily that life is just one problem after another. The more deeply we accept this reality and reject the mass produced mirages of some easier existence, the more at peace we will become.
When we accept that life is just one problem after another, we can surrender our shame and resentment and move on to use that energy to develop our problem solving skills. In a while, we will find ourselves, still troubled on every side, but confident we can handle most of what comes our way. And it is in there, amidst the problems life presents us, and not in the polished images of an easier world where we will, in the middle of our labor, discover real life.
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