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Senior Correspondent

I’m a problem solver. For most of my life, I have viewed this as one of my greatest strengths … and it is, except when it isn’t. 

If my problem is that I’m out of clean socks, then I can solve it by doing the laundry. If my problem is that my son is autistic, however, then try as I might — and try as I did for years — I cannot solve it. Years of various therapies improved my son James’s life, but they did not cure what I saw as the problem of his autism. 

The problem with my problem solving approach in that situation was that I saw his autism as a problem — a problem with one solution, which was to make him not autistic. When I couldn’t solve the problem, I saw myself as a failure. Thus, I had a son who was not “OK,” so I wasn’t OK either. 

I’ve come to understand that there are limits to problem solving as an approach to every challenge. As Pema Chodron says, “Problem solving is based first on thinking there is a problem and second on thinking there is a solution. The concepts of problem and solution can keep us stuck in thinking that there is … a right way and a wrong way.”

Chodron suggests a different approach, one that focuses on “working with, rather than struggling against.”

My epiphany regarding this approach came from none other than James himself, who observed one morning, “It’s great to be James!” Wow. James never saw his autism as a problem. He never saw himself as not OK.

Eschewing a right versus wrong problem solving approach to challenges requires a relinquishment of control, a willingness to keep an open mind, a tolerance for not knowing what will happen and, sometimes, a humbling of the ego.

I’m still a problem solver, but I’ve learned that my problem solving skills are useful in some situations and not in others. I’m still learning to tell the difference.

“Enlightenment is the ego’s ultimate disappointment.” – Chogyam Trungpa

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