No one has to tell you that we face a host of problems in the world today, everything from the global Coronavirus pandemic to global warming; increasing anxiety and depression to a collapsing economy; racism and police violence to divorce and domestic violence. Think of any problem that needs to be solved and you’ll find people-problems.
In an article titled, “Our current view of the world’s most pressing problems,” researchers at the University of Oxford’s Global Priorities Institute, The Open Philanthropy Project, and 80,000Hours.org, offer these top priorities.
- Positively shaping development of artificial intelligence.
- Building effective altruism.
- Reducing global catastrophic biological risks.
- Nuclear security.
- Improving institutional decision-making.
- Addressing extreme risks of climate change.
We have the technical expertise to solve most all the problems we face. The problems are really people problems. How can people work together in their own best-interests? Here is my modest proposal to get us started.
We can’t solve problems whether it’s a problem in our marriage, a problem in our psyche or a problem in the world if we don’t know ourselves. Trying to solve a problem without knowing ourselves is like planning a trip from here to there, without knowing where you are to start. How can I plot a course from here to there if I don’t know where I am. Since getting to know ourselves is a lifelong (and maybe multiple lives) process, we will become better and solving problems as we get better knowing ourselves.
2. Accept that there is no I.
We tend to think of ourselves as a separate beings. We imagine there is a separate person we call me, myself, or I. But the truth is we don’t exist, except in relationship with other selves. Even alone on a desert island, there would still be multiple relationships. We all exist within a rich net of other people and other parts of ourselves. I am my parents and the little six-year-old boy who was terrified of being abandoned. It’s an illusion that there is a separate I in the world.
3. Know whether we are seeing the others we relate to as thou or it?
The philosopher Martin Buber describes two kinds of human relationships. I-It and I-Thou. In relation to nature, ourselves and God, I-It sees us as separate. Others are to be used for our benefit. I-Thou sees us as involved in a sacred relationship of communion. Others are to be respected and cherished. As Buber says, “Love is the responsibility of an I for a Thou.”
4. Recognize that our human roots are in partnership, but we have been living in domination.
For more than 99% of our human history we lived as nomadic hunter-gatherers, but for the last 6,000 to 10,000 years we have lived within a dominator culture we euphemistically refer to as “civilization.” Hunter-gatherers lived in an I-Thou relationship to their whole world. “Native Americans,” writes Joseph Campbell in The Power of Myth, “addressed all of life as a ‘thou’—the trees, the stones, everything. He goes on to suggest to us, “You can address anything as a ‘thou,’ and if you do, you can feel the change in your own psychology. The ego that sees a ‘thou’ is not the same ego that sees an ‘it.’”
5. Solving people-problems is like playing jazz together.
I’ve been a therapist for more than 50 years now. When I started out, I knew very little about myself or others. I was a like a beginning music student playing “twinkle-twinkle little star” and getting the prescribed response from a client, “how I wonder where you are.” For years now, I feel more like a jazz musician playing intricate riffs that come to me intuitively. At the beginning, a session felt like walking across a bridge over a stream–very safe, very predictable, and very distant from the waters of life. In recent years I skip across the river jumping from stone to stone, never knowing where to jump next until I intuitively make the leap.
6. Not all therapists are healers.
I still remember being a graduate student and learning from senior therapists. My student placement was at a mental hospital and we watched a psychiatrist working with a patient through a one-way mirror. We were supposed to be seeing a master at work and the expert seemed very adept at guiding each session. On one occasion the patient reached out to shake the therapist’s hand, but the therapist didn’t reach back and simply said, “I’ll see you next week.”
When we questioned the therapist about what seemed to us an unnecessarily cold response, we were told that his job was to be a blank screen on which the patient would work out their childhood issues. I thought then, and still think, that I had a good demonstration of an I-It therapist that was not a true healer.
7. Both partners must have skin in the game.
Most therapists, like most people, keep their own personal issues private and separate. That’s good, to a degree. We don’t want to use the therapeutic session to work out our own problems. We need to do that in our own therapy sessions. But, even more than most, I’ve found therapists deny their own relationship problems. I know that was true for me. I had been a marriage and family counselor for many years even though I had gone through two marriages and divorces. I felt like a fraud. How could I really be helpful to others, if I couldn’t get my own relationship life together? I finally, reached out for help and spent years in therapy and more years really delving deeply into how to have a great marriage. My wife, Carlin, and I have been married now for more than 40 years.
Now, I have skin in the game in all my sessions. I recognize that both my clients, and myself, have something at risk. All relationships grow and change, and we must all grow and change with them. Though I focus on my clients, I know that we’re both learning how to love deeply and well.
8. Those who are committed to solving people-problems must have soul in the game.
Having skin in the game means we must be willing to put something at risk. Therapists, like most people, want to stay safe and secure and still get the benefits of having a loving and passionate relationship. But like the trapeze artist, we must let go of one bar and risk falling, if we are going to reach for and grasp the bar that is waiting for us. No risk, no reward.
Those who do people work for many years, are doing this as our life work. For me, this is not a job, or even a career. It is my life’s calling. Doing it effectively, means engaging relationships with my heart and soul.
Beginning in September, I will train, certify, and mentor 25 people-problem solvers who feel drawn to this work as their soul called. If you’re interested in learning more, check it out here. I look forward to meeting you.
Previously published on Menalive.com.
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