Thursday, September 27, 2007

How Bad Are Your Problems Really?

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The manner in which one endures what must be endured is more important than the thing that must be endured.
- Dean Acheson, US politician (1893-1971)

I find it hard to appreciate that everyone has problems, not just me. No, I didn't mean that I am a problem for everyone, though that would be a distinction that would be difficult to resist.

Furthermore, my problems are worse than those of everyone else. At least it seems that way.
The fact is that we seldom see others at times when they are in the process of expressing their problems. A drunk won't admit that he's drunk, even to himself. A drug addict may confess that he's high, but will not likely admit that he is an addict. Few addicts of any kind admit to their addiction, which is why Alcoholics Anonymous and similar organizations have their new members admit from the start that they are addicts before they will be helped.

Some parents are terrified of what may happen with their children as they go through the teens years. They would never admit this because it might give others the impression that they're bad parents, or inadequate for the job.

When my computer breaks down or my car is in the shop I feel as if I am at the brink of panic, that life is conspiring against me. Or at least that the gods of technology have a grudge against me.

To many people a computer or a car needing repair would be a minor inconvenience. Especially if the computer or the car is mine, not their own.

Our own problems always seem to be worse than those of others. But then, except for the rare instances of friends crying on the shoulders of other close friends, we seldom learn of the problems of others, the ones that bother them most.

As a sociologist, I am interested in the phenomenon that people almost inevitably consider their own problems worse than the problems of anyone else, to the point where I have studied it--albeit on an anecdotal basis--to see if my experience jives with that of others. It does.

Generally speaking, we don't know the problems of others. When we learn them we find that ours are not so bad after all.

A few years ago I did a study where I exposed several test subjects to the problems of others, without giving any names. I chose the problem sets of average people, of rich people, of people of good health and those with physical or mental handicaps, people just struggling through the rigours of their lives like most of us.

While the results confirmed my hypothesis, I was still shocked at how consistent everyone was. Not a single person was prepared to exchange their own problems for the problems of anyone else. A few noted that some people seemed to have few problems, though they were perhaps more severe. The people with fewer problems were usually those with physical or mental handicaps.

Though our problems seem worse than those of others, we don't want to exchange problems with anyone else if we have the chance. When we compare our own problems with those of others we realize not that ours are easier to solve but that they are easier to manage than the less well known problems of others.

Some of our problems we can't solve. They tend to be those whose origins lie in our early years of childhood. The best we can do with them is to learn to manage their effects on us and on others. An obvious form of this is how someone who loses a leg adapts to new ways of conducting their life and doesn't want to be treated as a "cripple." We learn to adapt and work around our early childhood problems or we become emotional cripples.

Your problems may seem bad to you, but you wouldn't want to trade them for the problems of anyone else if you knew the full depth and breadth of theirs.

Keep that in mind when you find yourself gazing enviously at people you see on television, people with talent, features and characteristics you don't have. They also have problems you wouldn't want.

Bill Allin
Turning It Around: Causes and Cures for Today's Epidemic Social Problems, a book about how to teach children the knowledge and skills they need to be able to manage their problems as adults, rather than having them succumb to addictions, abuse, thrill-seeking or other forms of escape from their problems.
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