When I saw her number pop up on the phone, I was tickled. Catching up on this and that with an old friend, we started unloading about a series of challenges that we’ve both been dealing with.
Isn’t it great when you have a friend like that? You can laugh, you can cry… all very “Cats”… then you can dissect what’s up. Maybe you get off the phone with a new perspective on whatever is troubling you.
One particularly prickly situation was discussed at some length, as my friend wisely reminded me of this: If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem.
That adage may originate in a social-political context, but isn’t it applicable to any number of scenarios that come up in daily life?
The Ants Come Marching…
I recall a ridiculous, mundane, but irksome situation a few years back. It involved ants that were making their way under a window sash and into my office, ostensibly via an overgrown tree pressed up against the side of my house. My immediate solution – stomping wildly on the floor, muttering under my breath in two languages, and spraying whatever I had handy (Raid!!!) – was wildly insufficient.
Might we add inopportune, inane, and ineffective?
“Call a service,” was the counsel I received from a friend with all the leisure time (and bucks) in the world. At least, compared to yours truly. “Or go out and buy a spray yourself and just take care of it.”
But I was swamped by meetings, appointments, deadlines, and other commitments. (Ugh. How many years have I been saying that?) Money was also an issue. Would a service be $100? Would it require a contract for regular visits?
As for time, always a scarce resource, I didn’t have the hour or two required to shuttle to Home Depot or Ace Hardware or Lowe’s (or possibly all three) to scout sprays. And then what? I’m sensitive to a variety of chemicals. I would have to vacate my workspace. But for how long? With what sort of disruption?
“Is there any way you could possibly help me out with this?” I asked. (Note the qualifiers. Asking for help is never easy for me.)
There was hemming and hawing. No volunteering ensued. And thus (with more muttering under my breath), while I realize she had no stake in my dilemma, her comments were irritating me at least as much as the damn ants.
If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem.
Conflict in Relationships
I can’t help but think of my mother whose M. O. was often to complain but rarely to resolve. At least, that was my experience of her. She would fuss, yell, bitch, argue, make faces, dramatize… to the max. Any sort of conflict with her was miserable. I learned to retreat into silence.
She was also quick to blame (others) for whatever wasn’t going right. Don’t we do better to set aside fault and focus on fixes?
We see this dynamic in intimate relationships. We see it in parenting. We see it in organizational life. Pointing out what’s wrong (or what we think is wrong), then leaving it at that.
And if you’re not part of the solution, aren’t you part of the problem?
A few months back, life being thorny from time to time as is nothing unusual, there was trouble in (my own little) paradise. My habit of clamming up at certain moments is unhelpful; nothing is ever resolved between two people if you can’t discuss what’s on your mind. And speaking of mind, men are not mind readers (though sometimes we believe they ought to be).
Because I tend to hold anger in and I don’t like conflict (I’m one of those Personality Type D’s), I have to remind myself to deal with issues as they arise. And if I don’t, I become part of the problem.
I admit, I still struggle with this.
Recognizing a Problem Brings You Closer to a Solution
When I was ready, I voiced what was bothering me. It was hard.
Problem solved? No, not entirely. Every problem doesn’t come with a tidy little solution. But at least the issue was on the table. I talked, he talked, we both listened. The situation improved immeasurably.
Sometimes, we may know the problem but all we can do is nothing. Or, doing nothing is actually doing something. Waiting is a good example of both; we may be waiting for tempers to ease, for hurts to heal, for training or school work to be completed.
Doing nothing can be abysmal, especially when we aren’t in the driver’s seat, if we’re impatient by nature, or if we’re used to being independent and “getting things done.” But doing nothing is actually bringing us closer to resolving a problem or meeting a challenge.
We also recognize times when doing nothing is simply that – doing nothing. Not taking ownership of one’s ability to help, not taking ownership of one’s ability to execute, and quite possibly, trying to deny there is a problem at all. (Welcome to the world of marriage for many of us… )
Finding Fault is Temporary Salve
When I consider how easy it is to find fault – and it’s satisfying on an emotional level, at least temporarily – I realize that a balance of venting and solution seeking is what many of us need when facing problems. Sure, we know the stereotype of men wanting to “fix” rather than being willing to listen. But we certainly need fixes, don’t we?
Let’s hear it for friends who unwittingly force us to face ourselves!
And so I’m wondering how often I have been part of a problem simply because I wouldn’t actively engage in a solution. I’m wondering how often I fault-find or lay blame, frequently on myself, but don’t move beyond that stage to determine if solutions can be had, and what they are.
Problem-solving of certain types can be logistically difficult to handle, without question. In my marriage, I felt so out of my depths in dealing with conflict that I took what I saw as the only viable path – the path of least (or no) resistance. I was accustomed to being on the losing side of any disagreement, I had learned (at my mother’s knee) to withdraw from contentious situations, and I talked myself out of confrontation.
Certainly, I was part of the problem.
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