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The Best Way to Respond to Problems We Can’t Solve

July 18, 2016

These past couple of weeks have been depressingly bad weeks in the world and the U.S. We saw massive protests against police who shot and killed black men who appeared not to be posing a threat; we then saw five police shot and killed in Dallas by a black man filled with hate; we then saw hundreds of people in France run over by a radicalized madman and a truck, killing at least 84; we then saw an attempted coup in Turkey that killed perhaps hundreds and is now resulting in a severe crackdown; and now we see more police targeted and killed in Baton Rouge.

We may be tempted to think our society and the whole world are falling apart. We are surrounded by problems over which we have little or no control and which appear to be unsolvable: generational poverty, failing schools, racial segregation, racial profiling, distrust of police, white privilege, powerlessness, hatred, terrorism, radicalization through social media, refugees and illegal immigration, the dissolution of traditional moral norms, unsavory politicians, dysfunctional governments, corrupt governments, out-of-control governments, soaring national debt, endless war, nuclear proliferation, weapons of mass destruction. The list could go on and on. It feels overwhelming and hopeless.

How should we respond to this endless swamp that has swallowed the best efforts of so many?

One response is to become fearful, angry, and self-protective. “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it any more!” We give up on trying to solve the problems, or even understanding the problems. Instead, we focus on just making sure we’re protected against harm. We make sure our military is well funded. We make sure as many bad guys as possible get killed. We make sure our own children live in safe neighborhoods and go to safe schools and get the best education and get the best advantages and get into the right programs that will set them up for life. We make sure our bank accounts and investments are full and protected. We make sure we vote for whoever will be the toughest and stand up for our own interests.

Besides ignoring the “royal law” to love your neighbor as yourself, this response may actually be one of the root causes of many of the problems. Looking out for oneself is not always wrong, but as an exclusive policy I think it leads to an even sadder world with even more problems.

Another response is to mostly ignore the problems and withdraw into pleasurable distractions. “I haven’t a clue what to do, so let the experts solve it. Look at this latest video of a dancing cat!” I have been told that during the Great Depression many people retreated into movie theaters where they could lose themselves every day in Hollywood spectacles and entertainment. Play is essential to life. We need to play, we need to take ourselves a little less seriously, we need to feel refreshed, we need to laugh. These are good things, and they are helpful during times of stress. It is also true that the problems around us are mostly unsolvable by any one of us, so we might as well stop thinking we’re going to save the world.

But play, by itself, is aimless self-indulgence. It leads to a meaningless life. To put pleasure ahead of facing necessary difficulties is perhaps the essence of immaturity. Get your homework done first, then play baseball. No, we cannot solve any of these problems in their entirety, but we can make sensible commitments and take compassionate action, and do so with a humble and playful spirit.

Another approach is throw ourselves into one or more of these problems with uncompromising zeal and never relent until peace and justice have arrived. Well, that isn’t going to happen; and in the meantime we will burn ourselves out and alienate our families. I honor the zealots. They are often remembered as the prophets and saints. A few of them are always necessary. But if we all did this we would drive each other crazy.

So my own recommendation is to let your compassion bloom wherever you are at. None of us will solve the problems of the world, but all of us being compassionate will prepare the ground for possible solutions in the future. Being compassionate literally means “to suffer with.” So to be compassionate means to seek to understand, to empathize with the other. Instead of seeing the world as divided between the good and the bad, see the world as human beings conditioned by their own perspectives and experiences and situations. Seek to understand “the enemy.” This does not mean ever condoning immoral actions. I will never condone driving over people with a truck or exploding a bomb at a city marathon. I will never accept shooting people who are not an immediate threat. I will never embrace bullying tactics and doing acts of injustice “for a greater good.” Understanding our enemies, or those with whom we disagree, does not mean surrendering our moral principles. But without understanding and empathy we cannot solve any human problems.

So we must become more aware. If possible, we must spend time with them and work with them and play with them and worship with them and live with them. We must walk in their shoes.

And have hope. Believe that, in the long run, love is more powerful then hate; goodness has more influence than evil; justice is the ideal humans naturally want. Believe that God has given each human being a basic and equal value, and it is God’s will to move the human story toward healing.

Also, keep a wider perspective. As bad as the problems of the world now appear to be, they were worse in the past. Plagues and war and violence kill a far smaller proportion of people today than in any previous century. And some of the social unrest we are seeing today may actually be signs that we are finally engaged in a deeper way in understanding and resolving long-unaddressed problems.


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  1. I needed to read this now more than ever. Can you expand (or did you previously expand on) the comment: “And some of the social unrest we are seeing today may actually be signs that we are finally engaged in a deeper way in understanding and resolving long-unaddressed problems.”?

    • I’m glad you found this post helpful. Regarding that final sentence: There is hope for progress in social unrest; social unrest means that we are identifying ignored problems and taking them seriously. I would never advocate for violent social unrest–that’s counter-productive. But nonviolent social unrest is the equivalent of feeling pain in one of our joints–it’s a signal from our body that we are misusing a part of our body and ought to make an adjustment in what we are doing. A society with no protests, no uneasy debates, no shakeup of the system is a society that is either blind to its problems or they are being repressed in an unhealthy way. The recent surge in charges of sexual misconduct, resulting in many firings, is a healthy development. There is always the danger of over-reacting (are the accused being given due process?), but the demand to have such aggression stop is surely a good sign. Men are waking up to their behavior in new and expanded ways, realizing that what was once regarded as “boys will be boys” is actually a devaluing of women.

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