Q: I attended your class on joyful living last year. You were talking about how to approach a problem. In referring back to my notes, I believe you said to ask the following question: “What is perfect about this problem?” To be honest, that went completely over my head. Would you mind breaking this down a bit for me here?
A: The premise is that every problem is embedded with opportunity, that each challenge comes with a built-in positive purpose. Even if you can’t see it at first, or even a decade down the road, you may eventually realize the good that came out of the worst of experiences.
As Thich Nhat Hanh reminds us, “In April, we cannot see sunflowers in France, so we might say the sunflowers do not exist. But the local farmers have already planted thousands of seeds and when they look at the bare hills, they may be able to see the sunflowers already. The sunflowers are there. They lack only the conditions of sun, heat, rain and July. Just because we cannot see them does not mean that they do not exist.”
When pain and loss hit my life, I try to be like the farmer and look for what is not visible just yet. I seek out the lesson the problem wants to teach me. I trust there is purpose in the darkest moments. Shadow can’t exist without light, right?
There are lots of ways to greet problems when they land on your doorstop like uninvited, belligerent house guests. The most common reaction is to freak out, melt down, run from it, become paralyzed by it, renew old addictions and take it out on others. This approach never ends well.
I prefer to disarm the problem at the outset. Asking “What is perfect about this problem” turns it on its head, destabilizes its force, weakens its negative impact. And looking at the problem in this way trains your brain to get better and better at turning setbacks into comebacks. Knowing that boundless growth will burst forth from the deepest devastation will give you hope amid the ashes. This is not delusion. It is vision.
Surely you’ve known someone who was remarkably and genuinely happy. Then you learn the person has survived unfathomable tragedy, and you are astonished. “I never would have guessed it,” you say. Well, you’ll begin to be such a person if you tackle your problems like a warrior - determined to reroute the arrow speeding toward your head. You see, the arrow misses because you’ve already rerouted the circuitry inside your head.
And what do I mean when I use the word “perfect” in the question? For me this is a matter of faith. I believe everything happens in perfect timing. I believe the perfect person will utter the gut-wrenching words I least want to hear. I believe there is perfection exactly in what feels most jagged and defeating.
Let me give a small example. Last year, Mama was in the hospital five times in the last 10 weeks of her life. One night I was staying late with her in her room and a new respiratory therapist appeared. It turns out he had read my memoir and knew all about Mama as a result. Mama was yearning to die and had spoken only a sentence or two in the previous hour.
But when the therapist acknowledged her as the heroine of my book, her eyes sparkled again, and she began to entertain him. He played right along. After 15 minutes of cracking wise and holding forth, she issued him a sassy dismissal: “Honey, now don’t you take this the wrong way ‘cause I sure do appreciate you for taking such good care of me. ... But no autographs tonight, please.”
The problem of my mother’s suffering was all I could see until the therapist made his entrance and brought my Mama back, however briefly. Like the old gospel song says, “They’ll be signs and wonders.”
These things don’t eliminate our sorrows, but they do lay bare the divine design of our lives.
Send your questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Lauretta Hannon, a resident of Powder Springs, is the bestselling author of “The Cracker Queen — A Memoir of a Jagged, Joyful Life” and a keynote speaker. Southern Living has named her “the funniest woman in Georgia.” See more at www.thecrackerqueen.com.