The other day, I fixed a problem with the way our dishwasher connects to the water supply. I’m sharing this story partly because the news headlines are often extremely alarming at the moment, and I thought my stupefyingly boring anecdote might numb you into a few moments of calm. (You’re welcome!) But it also demonstrates the wisdom of an insight I first learned from the psychiatrist M Scott Peck’s classic self-help book The Road Less Travelled: sometimes, all you need to do in order to fix things – in your kitchen, in your life – is to stop, and look, and wait.
Peck recalls chatting with a neighbour who was in the process of repairing his lawnmower, and mentioned his own ineptitude at such practical tasks. “That’s because you don’t take the time,” the neighbour shot back – a comment that gnawed at Peck and resurfaced a few weeks later when the parking brake on a patient’s car got stuck. Normally, he writes, “I would have awkwardly stuck my head under the dashboard; immediately yanked at a few wires without having the foggiest idea of what I was doing, and when nothing constructive resulted, would have thrown up my hands and proclaimed, ‘It’s beyond me!’” Instead, he lay down, got comfortable and looked for several minutes until he could trace the course of the brake apparatus. Finally he noticed a tiny latch that was jammed, and needed only a fingertip’s pressure to release it. Voilà! It wasn’t that the problem had been especially difficult; it was just that it couldn’t be rushed.
This bit of wisdom would be useful enough if it applied only to fixing home appliances and cars. But Peck’s larger point is that we hurry our personal problems, too: we race toward a resolution because we can’t tolerate the discomfort and uncertainty of waiting to work out the best one. And so we snap at our partners, discipline our kids in unhelpful ways, abandon creative projects, break off relationships, and much more, because at least then the matter’s been “dealt with”. But usually badly – because if dishwashers and cars are complex things, human affairs are more so.
One ironic result is how it can feel more comfortable to embrace being terrible at something than risk getting better at it, even though the latter might prove more rewarding. There’s a certain type of parent, for example, who strikes me as a little too invested in how triumphantly rubbish they claim to be at parenting. To be fair, that’s probably a healthier attitude than anxious perfectionism. But you can’t help wondering what’s driving their performative incompetence. Is it that they’re unwilling to work on getting better, because that would entail spending time in the uneasy place between acknowledging they had problems and knowing how to solve them?
What makes our intolerance for un-dealt-with problems so absurd is that life, from one perspective, is nothing but problems – or “challenges”, if you prefer – and a completely problem-free life would be devoid of anything worth doing, and thus of any value. So there’s no sense in rushing to solve any given problem solely to get it dealt with. There’s always another one waiting to replace it – and thank goodness for that.
Listen to this
The psychiatrist Judson Brewer explains why staying present with unpleasant emotions is key to breaking bad habits in an episode of the Deconstructing Yourself podcast.