Sometimes Problems Don’t Look Like Problems

Brad Feld, one of my favorite bloggers, wrote a little gem this week called Something New Is Fucked Up In My World Every Day. It’s an inspirational reminder that the way out of your problems is through, and that you don’t need to look far to discover how insignificant your significant woes may be. It also got me thinking — sometimes problems don’t look like problems.

Years ago my mother managed a facility for psychiatric patients who were hoping to eventually reintegrate into society. Once, on a visit home, I was chatting with her in her office and a guy knocked on the door, came in with a clipboard and a stack of papers, and proceeded to discuss medication schedules and patients with her.

He was dressed neatly, was very friendly and personable. He introduced himself to me and asked how my visit was going. He enthusiastically talked about how much he enjoyed working with my mother.

After he left I said, “Great staff, mom, he seems like a go-getter”, to which she replied, “He’s a patient — one of our most difficult”. Turns out that he was a well-adjusted, normal fellow most of the time (though delusional about his role there), but every couple of weeks he would have a big psychotic break for a day — he was sort of bipolar without the depression, with short, intense manic periods. Without medication, he was much worse.

Things aren’t always okay even when they seem okay, and any solution to a problem is susceptible to regression and entropy. Sometimes you don’t translate yourself through suffering as much as you scale its effects in some way — the operation is multiplicative, for better or worse. Very often suffering is recurrent, making a solution to a problem seem more like modulo than subtraction.

In the Eat Me If You Wish parable in Brad’s post, a man whose cave is full of demons makes them disappear by surrendering to their unknown wishes. The way I interpret this is that he renders his demons powerless by giving them his full attention — focus yields control, and suffering effectively becomes a choice.

I tend to think of suffering as more of a stream, a thread that runs in the background or is brought into focus. It doesn’t disappear — it’s clamped to some small epsilon and will never scale to zero. It’s a problem that doesn’t always look like a problem. Perhaps this makes suffering more about when than what, and when is something I can manage much better than what.