People Aren’t Problems to Solve

People Aren’t Problems to Solve
Photo by Jackson Simmer / Unsplash

Every afternoon, I pick my son up from school and drive him home. This usually happens at about 5pm. He likes to stay after school and play outside with his friends: basketball, soccer, whatever is competitive. On the way home, he’s often a little zonked from playing so hard. But I ask him: “What do you want to do when we get home?”

I ask him this question or two reasons:

  1. I want to set some expectations.
  2. I’m trying to solve a problem.

The problem I’m trying to solve? Well, it’s this:

How do I maximize my time with my child for optimal impact? Furthermore, how do I do this while also getting the other things done that I need to get done?

Just writing this makes me feel kind of gross. It’s clear that my afternoon routine, intended to help us have a better, more efficient evening, really just means that I’m treating my son as a problem to be solved.

I do not want to treat my child as a problem to be solved.

How did we get here?

Our culture indoctrinates us into the problem-solving mindset. It’s part of that cult of productivity I’ve been writing about.

In school, we are encouraged to be creative problem solvers. We are asked to solve problem after problem. Some problems are in the form of algebra or calculus, others are in the form of persuasive writing or historical interpretation. From kindergarten through high school, we identify problems, and we solve them. The scientific method, after all, is set up around this idea: define the problem, create a hypothesis, design the experiment, etc.

We are taught from a very early age that solving problems is valuable.

And it is! There’s absolutely nothing wrong with solving problems. No doubt, much of life is problematic, so we might as well seek some solutions to it.

That being said, to treat the people in our lives as problems to be solved is really to treat them as objects. It supplants what philosopher Martin Buber called the I-Thou relationship with the I-it relationship.

We want to avoid treating people as things. Immanuel Kant would’ve called this a violation of the categorical imperative. I just call it: wrong.

Not much for cover design, though Buber is a handsome man. Tsk. Tsk. Tsk. Don't judge a book by its cover, I guess. I highly recommend Buber's I and Thou.

What does letting go of problems look like?

This is where mindfulness comes into play. A key part of a mindful life is becoming aware of the underlying causes and desires that exist within us.

When I ask my son what he wants to do this evening, I intend to solve a problem. However, the first step in moving past this is to recognize that that’s what I’m doing. When I recognize this, I can easily then see the pattern for problem-solving that I’ve set up, and I can work to subvert it.

Step one, then, is just recognizing that you’ve turned something into a problem.

Now, you move to the next step: Is this a problem I’m trying to solve? Or is this a human being I’m trying to have a relationship with?

Sometimes, we do need to be in problem-solving mode.

  • How do I get dinner ready and get you to baseball practice?
  • How do we get all of our chores done and get to bed on time?

Most of the time, however, our interactions with the people we care about do not need to be treated as problems to solve because, after all, people aren’t problems to solve.

The final step in this is what I call “entering the now.” It’s a simple, but radical shift in thinking. Rather than seeing my son as a problem to solve, I see him as a now to be with. I can ask the same question of him — “What do you want to do tonight?” — but I can do it with an eye toward how I can be with him, spend time with him, enter the now with him.

It’s about intention, then.

  • Is my desire to solve some problem called “what to do with these hours between school and bedtime”?
  • OR…is my desire to be with my son?

The Steps

Consider the intentions behind your interactions with the people you know, the people you care about, the people you love. Do you sometimes treat time with them as a problem to be solved? If so, maybe take yourself through these steps:

  1. RECOGNIZE. This is good. You’ve recognized that you’re caught in the problem-solving trap. Name it.
  2. ASSESS. Is there really a problem I need to solve here? Sometimes, during holidays, for example, when we’re trying to fit many things in our calendar, we really are trying to solve a problem. If, however, we’re treating the other person as a problem, then we move to step three.
  3. ENTER THE NOW. Give up on the calendar, give up on the clock, and enter the now. How can you be present with this person? What is it really like to spend time with them? To listen? To converse?

I find that when I enter the now, time flows freely, and I’m often unaware of just how much time has passed. Why? Joy, to be honest. Entering the now is like a little dose of joy, most of the time.