Over the last decade, I’ve been making a profound shift in how I’m relating to what’s difficult in my life—I’m turning towards it.
Some may wonder: Why would I want to do that? There’s so much conditioning to run from what’s painful, and our culture offers countless options to distract ourselves. Turning toward difficulty can be painful and unpleasant. It’s scary. Yet from my experience, facing what’s hard beats the alternative.
The following is a story from my childhood that taught me that lesson.
I grew up in a house deep in the woods of Western Connecticut. My parents were not handy people, and when my father’s career as a retail executive faltered there was limited money for house repairs. An ongoing joke in the house was “the list.” Rather than fix anything that broke, we kept an imaginary list of items that needed fixing. Outside, there was the porch on the side of the house that collapsed, leaving a sliding glass door in the kitchen that opened to a six-foot drop onto a pile of rotting wood and rusty nails. Inside, items on the list included the kitchen dishwasher, the family room ceiling tiles, the carpeting on the stairs leading to the family room, and much more. The stairway carpeting was especially comical, because as more and more of the carpet was pulled up, the stairs resembled a shaggy brown wave.
At one point the upstairs tub sprang a leak, which was a problem deemed essential enough for my parents to call a contractor for an estimate. That estimate was in the thousands, and thus well beyond our budget. I think at some point my parents reached a state of overwhelm that inhibited them from facing the pain and humiliation of trying to fix any of the many things that were broken.
The permanently out-of-order upstairs tub meant that my parents, brother, and I all had to take our showers in the downstairs half-bathroom.
Then the downstairs heating broke.
Morning showers became an adventure in the New England winters. I’d run downstairs along the wave of carpeting and turn the hot water on as fast as possible, because it was sometimes literally freezing. After the shower, I’d steel myself up for the sprint back up the stairs. My parents didn’t even investigate how much it would cost to fix the downstairs heating—they knew they couldn’t afford it, so why bother wasting a contractor’s time and cause more heartache for themselves.
It may seem that with the house in such tentative condition, my brother and I would have been especially careful with all that wasn’t broken. The opposite was true. Two unhappy boys in a dysfunctional situation is a recipe for destruction. We’d throw basketballs and tennis balls against the front of the house, occasionally sending another wood panel to the ground. We’d poke at the sagging drywall ceiling in the family room, where we’d also hit golf balls and watch as they ricocheted around the room.
This was routine life for many years, until a year or so before my parents had to sell the house. In advance of the sale, my parents finally looked into fixing the downstairs heating. The contractor came and did a thorough inspection. My parents braced themselves for the astronomical figure he’d surely quote. The contractor gave my parents the quote they’d been dreading for years: $25.
He needed to reset the thermostat.
I’ve regularly found that the fear of what it will take to resolve a problem is far worse than what happens when we actually address it. I don’t intend to imply that every problem has a $25 solution. If only that were so. Yet even if the resolution to the difficulty is complex—it’s much simpler if we meet what’s challenging, and you might even end up saving yourself years of needless suffering.