Here’s a short fable that might be about you. Or someone you know.
Once upon a time long ago, after the invention of clothes but before the invention of shoes, there was a fabulous princess.
Born into wealth, she spent her days not working but rather wandering about her father’s vast kingdom, skipping down the pathways, stopping now and then to bask idly in her good fortune, or sometimes to frolic.
One day she was skipping along, and she stubbed her bare toe on a rock sticking out of the pathway.
She was quite upset, and became horrified at the thought of all the other aggressive and dangerous rocks that might be out there. So she pranced, at a cautious half-speed, back to the palace where she stormed into to the office of King’s closest advisor. She demanded that he have the entire kingdom sealed in leather, so that she never would have to suffer the pain and humiliation of stubbing a toe again.
After a moment, the advisor realized she was quite serious, and he began to to sweat a little. Her request, even if it could actually be carried out, would be hideously expensive even for such a fantastically wealthy kingdom. But the princess had her father wrapped around her finger and was unaccustomed to not getting what she wanted. Denying her wish would upset the king greatly, perhaps costing the advisor his head.
So he proposed a pragmatic solution. “Your highness, what if instead of paving the entire kingdom in leather, we create leather garments that we can slip onto your feet, so that you will be protected wherever you go, in our kingdom and even beyond?”
Being a fabulous, materialistic princess, she loved the idea and shoes were invented that day. By the time she died she had two thousand pairs.
(Traditional fable, hat tip to Jon Kabat-Zinn)
Such a wealthy and demanding princess might actually have had the worldly power to pull off her original solution, or at least most of it. Money and influence, external power in its two classic forms, were not normally limited for her. So if she could have the whole kingdom rendered harmless by gilding it in leather — or even pleather if the overlay had to be so large it drove cows to extinction — it would be incredibly costly and cause all sorts of unforeseen practical issues, but her problem could indeed be solved.
A person without vast reserves of wealth and power, such as one of her subjects in the village, wouldn’t have this option and would have no choice but to suffer a lifetime of scraped heels and disjointed toes. After all, if you have unlimited control over circumstances, then you have no problems.
But nobody has unlimited power over the world around them. So a wiser person brought to the princess’s attention, in a very diplomatic manner, that the problem she perceived as being everywhere only ever existed at the point of contact between her and the world around her.
Her extensive resources were usually enough to obliterate anything she perceived as a problem. She had always needed money and influence to solve her problems, because she had always been in the habit of defining a problem as the thing that vexed her, rather than what it really was: the friction between herself and that thing.
When she was finally able to carry with her a remedy for the problems that sometimes occur at these points of contact, she found three things:
- That the problem (and consequently its solution) is much smaller than it appears at first
- That the remedy is something she can carry with her and apply everywhere
- That the resolution of the problem has little to do with the details of the thing she runs afoul of, and everything to do with how she engages it on her end
Handle your end
As much as I don’t like spelling out metaphors, this story obviously isn’t about shoes or toe-stubbing. It’s about how you define problems in your head, and it’s how you think of problems that determines their size and scope. Your problem can be an entire kingdom rife with jagged rocks that must be removed, avoided or neutralized at all costs, or it can be a tiny patch of skin that is sometimes prone to some nasty friction.
The amount of energy and stress involved in treating the problem changes drastically when you recognize that the problem only exists at the point of contact.
The older I get, the less frustrated I am by my inability to control the circumstances around me, and the more I realize that the problem is never the circumstances anyway. The problem is the friction between me and that circumstance, and the extent of that friction is something I always have a say in.
As I gradually come to understand the relative unimportance of the form my problems take, the better I get at fielding them in real-time. Often I can skip the actual “problem” part and get onto improving the situation without the customary mini-tantrum.
If you think of problems solely as properties of the outside world (and not as the relationship between you and your circumstances), then in order to take care of it you have to find a way to control the circumstances around you until they become different enough that they don’t bother you any more.
This is the conventional mentality human beings use for dealing with problems, and there’s a better way. Constantly trying to manhandle circumstances to suit your preferences takes an enormous amount of energy and resources and is often impossible, unless you have trillions of dollars. Not all of us are spoiled princesses, though you always have the right to act like one if you choose.
Friction, when we’re talking about running afoul of circumstances, is determined by the quality of your state of mind when something undesirable happens. The worse your state of mind, the greater the friction, the bigger the problem and the more it takes from you before you’re through with it.
This is the self-reliant person’s mentality for fielding problems as they arise, giving you much more leverage than the more classical approaches, which befit uptight princesses perfectly but are also still common in our world:
- blaming the bastards who did this
- wishing for relief, or fantasizing about an out-of-the-blue solution or some other deus ex machina
- talking and thinking about how things should be or what other people should be doing differently
Unless I’m already really cranky, I now regard these all as wasteful indulgences that increase the friction between me and my circumstances. That friction is the real problem, not the circumstance, so I don’t want to make it bigger by losing myself in those kinds of trains of thought.
All these kinds of thinking have two important traits in common:
- They have a snowball effect. You could spend your entire life talking to yourself and others about how Sheila shouldn’t be speaking to you that way, or people shouldn’t drive the way they do, or they shouldn’t make the package so fucking hard to open.
- They keep you wrapped up in the idea that other people, or the world at large, owe you a solution for this, and that you can get to it by convincing yourself or someone else that this situation is a horrendous injustice that just shouldn’t be! (*sob*)
Both of these make the friction greater, and keep you from fixing the problem. They make your problems bigger and your capacity for solving them smaller.
As I said in a response to an email from a reader frustrated with the state of the world:
If you look at the different approaches to happiness — the various religious, philosophical and psychological perspectives — you’ll find that almost all of them conclude that happiness is not particularly circumstance-dependent. It doesn’t depend on somebody’s situation, but their mental relationship to their situation.
The smooth-sailing you often hope your circumstances will bring you can be achieved much more reliably if you worry about your end of the point of contact. What’s required is a commitment to tend to your end of of the deal — what you let your mind do with it. Self-reliance, again.
This is the high-leverage end of the stick. It’s always with you, you can apply it anywhere, and you don’t need a rich daddy or two million dead cows.
Photo by dawnzy58