How to privilege a problem

I was listening to a podcast in the car one day in which a woman was explaining her complicated situation to a therapist. During the discussion, she referenced a workshop she’d attended at which the presenter had asked everyone to write down what they would identify as the most significant problems in their lives. The presenter asked them to consider these problems for a minute while looking at the words on paper. Then the woman recalling this experience paraphrased the presenter’s next point, and I rewound the podcast so many times I lost count, listening to this explanation over and over again until I’d committed it to memory. These are the exact words she used: “The problems you have today are the problems you’re not willing to give up for the ones that you would have if you gave them up.”

For some reason, I found this tremendously profound, probably partly because it’s also so obvious. But hearing it pronounced this way, in that one succinctly lucid sentence, struck a chord. Not only did this idea train a spotlight on the veracity of the concept as it applies to many people, but it also shed perspective on the place of privilege that one inhabits if this statement rings true. If the most pronounced problems in our lives are ones we choose to keep lest we face other, more difficult or unpleasant problems, we are among the most fortunate. Think of those whose greatest challenges can’t just be exchanged for another set of challenges; think of those who would leap at the chance to change their station because their problems are so onerous that no alternative could be less desirable. I’m talking about people who would consider their race to be the issue that presents the most difficulty. I’m talking about people who would cite their gender at birth as such. Homeless people. People with a disability or a disease. People who are bereft and grieving a loved one. People without access to enough food. People who live unhappily with an addiction or mental health affliction. This list, I’m sure, could continue.

I know, the presenter at that workshop was aware of the demographic of his or her audience and was speaking directly to them. For them, and for people like me, I love the frame of reference those words provide: many, if not all, of our problems are ones we have by choice. We keep those problems around voluntarily because we’re averse to the alternatives. This perspective makes these problems feel less like problems and more like opportunities; it makes them feel less oppressive and more intentional. It divests them of some of their negative power, which makes more space for gratitude. I want to keep that sentence fresh in my mind, at the forefront of my consciousness, as I go through this incredibly lucky life, so I remember to keep flipping the script on the plights that blight my time on this earth. And I want to introduce the idea to my children while they’re still really young to give them a tool to carry around in their social-emotional pocket, in hopes that they can pull it out to pick the locks on the doors life tends to put up. I want them to learn to turn those doors into mirrors that then become windows. For once, I’ll be the one asking them questions that begin with those two little words kids love to use with their parents. When they identify a complaint that shows their good fortune or privilege, when they express displeasure about a problem they have that could be considered a gift in disguise, once in a while I want to respond with, “What if you didn’t?”

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