I mentioned yesterday that Jacques Barzun’s distinction between problems and difficulties has been an important one for me. But it took a long stretch of practicing the distinction before I saw the genius at the heart of it—problems call for changes in the external environment to reduce or eliminate the challenge, while difficulties call for adjustments in how one deals with the challenge, which may or may not change objectively as a result.

Twenty-five years ago I developed Reiter’s syndrome, an odd form of rheumatoid arthritis which is triggered suddenly and can disappear just as suddenly, but has no known cure. Initially the effects were pretty bad—I could barely walk 100 yards, climb a staircase, or hold my newborn son. I was diagnosed and put on a combination of methotrexate (a chemotherapy drug!) and massive doses of ibuprophen, which got the pain and swelling under control but by no means eliminated it.

Soon after the diagnosis and initial treatment we relocated to the Austin area, and I found a rheumatologist there. He checked me over, ran down all the possible treatments (gold injections, surgery, …), and asked me if I wanted to pursue any. I asked him in turn: what would you choose to do? He said that since the chances of improvement were small and the risks of making things worse were significant, as long as he could stand the pain he’d leave things alone. Excellent honest advice, which I took.

What I noticed over the next ten years was that although my condition didn’t improve, by constantly working to accept it my attitude towards it did. The pain and swelling, and the limits it put on me, became the new normal. The difficulty eventually became a non-difficulty. So much so that it took me awhile to notice that the pain was ebbing. Something inspired me to eliminate the methotrexate, and then gradually cut back the ibuprophen to nothing. I still have pain and limitations, but due to the joint damage which the arthritis did—the arthritis itself is gone.

I like the idea of the new normal. It reminds me of a point Scott Adams made in his book about failing one’s way to success: goals are for losers. Literally. If you set yourself a goal, the only end states are winning and losing—usually losing. Adams suggests adopting systems instead of goals, and by systems he means a methodical approach to a situation. In which case (he claims) you always experience improvement: your approach helps you to handle the situation better, or you tweak the approach until it does, or you decide it won’t and abandon it after having learned something important.

This is a secular engineer’s version of what I think is the path to shalom, as defined by Cornelius Plantinga:

In the Bible, shalom means universal flourishing, wholeness and delight – a rich state of affairs in which natural needs are satisfied and natural gifts fruitfully employed, a state of affairs that inspires joyful wonder as its Creator and Savior opens doors and welcomes the creatures in whom he delights. Shalom, in other words, is the way things ought to be.

May the shalom of Christ be with you!

2 thoughts on “Difficulties

  1. I’m sorry to read of your struggles.

    I usually think of having themes (ways I want to be more of. Last year’s theme was “ask,” for instance, to remind me to rely more on other people and to request help when I needed it) rather than goals. I, too, am suspicious of them.

    re: new normal — if it’s a situation that you can’t do anything about, I agree. I think this is particularly applicable to bodily challenges. I’ll never be able to stay up for 48 hours again and wouldn’t want to. Life has to change.

  2. I’m sorry to read of your struggles.

    Please don’t be, I’m actually grateful for them (more so in hindsight, but still ….) I avoid writing about them because I’m not skilled enough to convey my attitude about them—saying that all in all they’ve been no big deal, even in the midst of them, is accurate but not very persuasive. But they are also some of the clearest examples of how my thinking has been formed, so I think I need to try harder to write about them.

    re: new normal — if it’s a situation that you can’t do anything about, I agree. I think this is particularly applicable to bodily challenges. I’ll never be able to stay up for 48 hours again and wouldn’t want to. Life has to change.

    Sometimes I bow to circumstances, sometimes I can shape circumstances into ones I would prefer, mostly circumstances and I stumble our way towards a mutually acceptable compromise. The balancing process itself has become interesting enough that I don’t care much anymore which of us has the upper hand in a particular situation.

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