The Three Kinds of Problems

The problems one encounters in life can be organized into 3 categories:

Emergencies are acute, high-priority issues that need attention right away. Breaking an arm, the vehicle used for your delivery gig breaking down, or the freezer crapping out after you’ve just filled it with a bunch of meat. You are obligated to attend to these immediately if you want to avoid painful or costly consequences.
Hassles cause big inconvenience, but they don’t demand immediate attention. The hot water heater failing, or the car breaking down when you’re within walking distance of work and grocery stores. The problem is a hassle, sufficiently inconvenient you’re motivated to resolve it quickly, but you don’t need to drop everything to do so.
An irritant isn’t a huge deal. It’s a minor inconvenience, a problem you might like to fix, but you can ignore it or learn to live with it. The stereo in the car breaking down, the late-night parties the neighbor throws every weekend, the tumblers on the front door lock being difficult.

I think we all grok emergencies and hassles. They’re easy to understand. But given their subtlety, irritants are trouble.

Irritants are like weeds in a garden. Individually, they’re no big deal. Digging up weeds is a hassle, so why not just put up with them? It would be easier than getting down on your knees in the dirt, and ripping them out one by one.

But the thing about weeds is that although individually they can be ignored, collectively their influence adds up. More weeds are always coming up, and perhaps they even multiply. Leave them unattended and soon they’ll take over, choking out the good vegetables, grains and fruits.

And when that’s happened, it might be temping to abandon the plot. You’ll have harvest from the other plots, right? But again, individually this is a viable strategy, but with repeated use you will have fewer and fewer plots until one day, you won’t grow enough to sustain yourself.

This garden analogy mirrors my life some years ago. In 2003 a stressful job pushed me over the edge, and afterward, I was so burned out I didn’t have the desire or capacity to deal with the weedy problems. I neglected them, disregarded them, and in time I learned it was an effective strategy—a sort of learned helplessness.

Except that 4 or 5 years later, my life was filling up with weeds, problems I had ignored because it was easier than fixing them. But not fixing them didn’t make them go away: instead, they collected and festered, and the growing pile if irritants became a trouble spot in my life.

So I looked at the problem: I could make these problems go away by evicting from my life the things they were associated with. I disconnected from needy acquaintances, got rid of unwanted possessions that cluttered up the house, and stopped doing things that came with snags. Sometimes it meant letting go of things I liked, but that was the cost of getting rid of those pesky, lingering, weedy problems.

And so another 2 or 3 years later, I found myself getting boxed in as my options diminished under the eviction strategy. Throwing things out of my life to avoid the effort to fix them had brought on consequences of its own.

I like novelty, and watching my options diminish was very uncomfortable. I felt the restrictions, and envisioned my life turning into emptiness, to long hours watching TV, lots of isolation, and no adventures. It motivated me to reconsider my strategies.

I’d been looking at this issue for a while when one of my gigs attempted to violate me enough that I fought it. It was really difficult, and I almost knuckled under and paid an unjust fine just to make the problem go away, but at the last minute they changed their mind. And even though I won, I evicted them because the fight had caused so much pain. But it had sown a seed.

In the years since—7 or 8 years so far—I revisited many of the things I omitted, and reconsidered my actions. Although it’s often a lot of work, I’ve taken action to address irritants, and when successful, brought things back into my life. And I have made amends where reflection uncovered mistakes I’ve made and harm I’ve done.

The process is ongoing. A few months ago, I was looking at some jobs, and wanted some outside feedback on some employment stuff. It took a few weeks to overcome my skepticism, gird myself against my fears, and walk myself into an agency that claims employment as their area of expertise. They had never previously helped much, treated me inhumanely along the way, and subsequently spammed me to add insult to injury—but things change, and I change, and it was time to revisit my thoughts, and perhaps prejudices.

It turned out that most of a decade later, they haven’t changed much. Right down to spamming me afterward. I think some of the people there mean well, but their processes are backward, a waste of my time, and the help devoid of value. I wonder why people work there; if the employees so disenfranchised and disempowered that they just go along with the way things are, to earn a paycheck? So I’ll evict this agency again, kicking them, their uselessness, and their problems out of my life. Sometimes, there are things you just can’t fix.

And as for the spam? I’m not rolling over and tolerating the irritation this time. I’ve sent them notice to knock it off, and started a paper trail to document the issue should they not comply—given their ineptness I don’t know that they will. And if they don’t, I look forward to my first trip to small claims court. Some might think it’s an overreaction, and perhaps individually it is. But if they’re spamming me, how many others are there? An invasive plant left unchecked often takes over, replacing native flora with a monoculture in its own ruinous image. Rolling over and feeling helpless won’t benefit anyone except those creating the problem.

I will still pick and choose my battles; there’s no sense in tilting at windmills. And though some may seem insignificant or minor, I won’t always take the world’s slights lying down—because too often the consequences, in the long run, are unexpectedly large.