Problem solving is core to who we are as humans. But do all problems have a solution? Should they? Is our existential confusion and battle with the lower self (nafs) a linear problem to be solved?
The Internet, social media, and the ever-increasing world of self-help and positive thinking make it seem as though there are now more solutions than an actual articulation of what our problems are. There is a rush to ‘cure’ a situation that often misses the point and ill-defines it. Inevitably, such hastiness impacts the quality of the advice given. We now have a myriad of experts, but very little wisdom.
What I am referring to manifests regularly in our responses to the discomfort and turmoil of others. If someone says a statement like ‘I want to lose weight’ or ‘I’m unhappy at my job’, we instantly judge them by advising them. They are expressing dissatisfaction and therefore failure in their present circumstance. Yet we rush to help them fix it. Why?
It’s usually a symptom of being uncomfortable with emotions that are distressing or upsetting. We give advice to alleviate the distress we feel at another’s plight. We don’t want to ask questions anymore. We want the other person to shut up. We feel that negativity is contagious and we don’t want it in our lives.
I used to be a rescuer and thought this was what it meant to be “noble”. I’d see someone suffering and feel an intense need to help. I have since learned that I was the one suffering and projecting on to others. I focused my intentions on saving myself and the need to rescue fell apart. I wanted to be compassionate, but not responsible for ensuring an outcome – for fixing the issue.
We are taught: ‘No soul shall bear the burden of another’ [Qur’an 53:38]. It can be difficult to remember that the person in front of us is an autonomous being in the eyes of God, fully accountable for each decision he or she makes. This must of course to be balanced with wanting for our brother/sister what we want for ourselves and improving the communities we live in.
The other inescapable truth is that there is something in our very nature which resists being patronized or saved by others. We seem to only suffer and stagnate when protected and infantilized. A soul’s natural development is distorted somehow. An addict remains an addict, his enabler a co-dependent. A risk-averse bureaucrat digs their heels in and laments the activists and their ‘drama’. We know we have free will and something within us strives to live up to that honour.
And what if we’re the one complaining? Well, we want practical tips, solutions, lists with bullet points, science. We hate abstractions, we don’t want to think or feel. We want it fixed.
The Universe can be broadly organized into camps of Order and Chaos. These forces need each other. Yet, for too long it feels as though the world has been under the restrictive dictates of an obsessive-compulsive need for certainty. Chaos is suppressed, but it exists whether we see it or not. Uncertainty, mystery, the wild, the unknown; these are crucial and important to being alive. And often, uncertainty means not having the answers.
This is why problem solving can be unhelpful, especially when unsolicited. If you have your life figured out, then you’re probably in the minority. Or living very safely. I’ve noticed that the most ordered people have the greatest intolerance for discomfort. And contrary to our beliefs, it’s not because they’re better than us.
‘You cannot live without failure, unless you have lived so cautiously, that you may as well not have lived at all.’ – JK Rowling
So, what am I saying? Next time someone comes to you with a problem, sit with your discomfort and with theirs. You might just learn something by embracing some of the chaos. It might just put some hair on your chest, it might just make you more resilient, more patient, less risk averse and also help to develop humility. It might be entertaining. It might teach you something. It’s a fact of life that the strongest among us have not always had it together.
‘If Allah wants to do good to somebody, he afflicts them with trials.’ Prophet Muhammad ﷺ (May God’s peace and blessings be upon him). [Sahih Bukhari]
It’s never about having all the answers, doing all the “good” things and curating a perfect life where nothing ever went wrong. We should embrace the tests, the mess, the dilemmas. This is true strength.