Designer Problems

Tipped over caterpillar backhoe with breaker

I kinda had my mind blown.

Popular psychologist and philosopher Jordan Peterson was talking about problems. We all have them, and yours are different from mine. Why? Perhaps yours are specific to you and mine are specific to me because, if we handle them well, they form the paths to our specific destinies.

“Can I please have some more game time?” My nine-year-old son, Taras, sidles up to my desk chair, blue eyes shining up from under a tangle of blond hair.
“Not tonight. It’s time for bed.” I turn from my computer and tousle his mop.
“Pleeeease.” he howls and falls on my lap.
“And you need to brush your teeth.”
“Noooooo.” Arms flung to the air, he arches backward as if he’s been shot. With a moan, he collapses to the floor and curls up in agony.

He’ll tell me I’m torturing him. But here’s the funny part, when he can’t play games on the computer, he reads science books and plays the piano. He has perfect pitch. Only one in 10,000 people in the US have that gift. He also knows all the bones in the human body, and can tell you about your limbic, nervous, endocrine, and immune systems along with the symptoms of at least a dozen diseases. He’s brilliant.

Are you thinking what I’m thinking? What’s he going to be when he grows up? A rock star? A doctor? A scientist? A toothless 45-year-old playing computer games in his underwear in my basement? As much as he hates the constraints I give him, without them, how will he have the opportunity to use the incredible gifts he’s been given?

When I have problems, my default is anger. I may not roll around on the floor (at least not when anyone’s looking), but I still grit my teeth and curse under my breath. Why do problems upset me so much? I had to dig deep to figure out why my happiness is tied to my success; it’s because my value as a person is dependent on my ability to accomplish the things I decide are important – or worse what others think are important. Wow. Haven’t I come further than this in my faith walk?

Theologian Henri Nouwen points out my success driven life will be a saw blade, jumping from highs to lows, ending in the lowest low – death.

But there is another way to live.

When I heard Dr. Jordan Peterson talking about my problems being custom-fit for my betterment, I immediately thought about a couple other people who said basically the same thing.

John Gottman studies marriages. He’s watched hundreds of couples grow from newlyweds all the way through their marriage. Some became stable, happy families; some suffered the tragedy of divorce. He noticed that 69% of the problems in a marriage will never be solved. They’re like an old sports injury you learn to limp with. Couples he studied for 40 years of marriage still squabbled about the same things they did when they first met – and they’re happily married.

Here’s the part that made my jaw drop – that 69% number is the same for happy couples as it is for miserable ones.

Turns out my problems aren’t the problem as much as how I deal with them. I know that some people are just too damaged to be in a healthy relationship, but for the rest of us, guess what produces intimacy in successful marriages? The way the problems are handled. Does that mean I need problems to have a deep intimate marriage?

The truth about problems giving us the path to fulfillment doesn’t just apply to relationships. The same thing applies to personal problems. The acclaimed British journalist, Piers Morgan, says it this way: “How you deal with the downside of life [is really what] defines how you lead the rest of your life.”

Viktor Frankl, a renowned psychologist makes it personal. Guess what his studies show is the best way to overcome a fear or neurosis? Face it. Today they call it “exposure therapy.” I know a lot of people who think the best way to handle fear or neurosis is to pretend neither is a problem, call them boundaries, and make everybody else bend over backwards to accommodate. But if I don’t face my issues, I’m likely missing out on the greatest opportunities of my life.

Dr. Frankl survived Auschwitz. I don’t think anyone will argue that he doesn’t understand problems and the suffering that goes along with them. He said something amazing about suffering – that it’s linked to great destiny and through it we find meaning and fulfillment we can find in “no other way.” In other words, if I got every good thing I wanted in life, it may not be enough to make my life worthwhile.

I don’t want to suffer and I don’t want problems, but when I do, I want it to mean something worthwhile.

Of all the aspects of God I’ve encountered in my life, one of my favorites is this problem reversal characteristic. God isn’t limited by success. I don’t have to get it right for him to get it right. He brings about his plans and my heart’s desire just as easily with my failures and problems. God’s solution isn’t a mindful, Zen detachment from my problems; his way seems to be, me jumping into my problems with both feet because when I do, he crafts them into my path to become the very person I hunger to be.

God doesn’t cause my problems. He doesn’t have to, there’s already plenty. But he also doesn’t leave me to suffer in them alone. I’m not happy about my problems, that would be weird. But lately I am weirdly grateful for them and instead of getting angry, I’m learning to pray – not just for a resolution but for God’s company during the issue.

I’ve learned that with God beside me, random problems become full of coincidences. They become designer problems, custom fit for me to reach my God-given destiny.

* * *

We must accept the circumstances we constantly find ourselves in as the place of God’s kingdom and blessing. God has yet to bless anyone except where they actually are, and if we faithlessly discard situation after situation, moment after moment, as not being “right,” we will simply have no place to receive his kingdom into our life. For those situations and moments are our life.
~Dallas Willard

And I said to the man who stood at the gate of the year:
“Give me a light that I may tread safely into the unknown.”
And he replied:
“Go out into the darkness and put your hand into the Hand of God.
That shall be to you better than light and safer than a known way.”
~Minnie Louise Haskins

The backhoe photo is from a really bad day a few years ago. What’s the lesson here? Don’t let me drive your machinery. The photo of the Santorini is one I took on my honeymoon with my wife Megan.