Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Problems and Dilemmas

For a month or two now, I've been giving a good deal of thought to problems and dilemmas. The way I've been thinking about them is this: a problem in your life, like a math problem, has a solution, perhaps even multiple solutions, but in any case, a problem can be solved; a dilemma, on the other hand, is a situation in which there really isn't a good solution, just a weighing of bad options. Problems, even when difficult, have a certain straightforwardness to them; dilemmas, by contrast, are laden with complexity.

It seems to me that as we get older, we have a higher ratio of dilemmas to problems then we did at a younger age. Perhaps this is because the adults in our lives shielded us from the really thorny problems, taking that angst on themselves. But perhaps it's also a matter of perception: perhaps as we get older, we become better able to see the real complexity, to see the ramifications that are both long-term and wider than ourselves, and suddenly situations that in our younger days would have seemed like straightforward problems with good answers turn out to have been only good answers in the short run or for ourselves without consideration of those around us (which, ultimately, may come back to bite us in the long run).

In any case, I have a sense, too, that the higher ratio of dilemmas to problems is in some ways actually more difficult the better you were at solving problems, or the smarter you are. Why? Because, on the one hand, you've gotten used to being able to solve problems and now you're running into things that are actually unsolvable; on the other hand, the more clearly you can see the complexities of the situation, the more likely you are to fall into what we call in the board game world "analysis paralysis." In other words, you spend your time thinking about all the angles on the problem and can't move forward to choosing one of the horns of the dilemma.



  1. Walker Percy talks about this in his novel The Last Gentleman. I wouldn't go to that novel for advice, though, nor do I offer any from the wisdom of more advanced age!

  2. I think you've got it just about right, except for one more sticky wicket: the more you think about it, the more you realize it's entirely possible (probable) that you don't have ALL the information you need to decide one way or the other. Plus you may be in the situation that either decision will have consequences that seem intolerable--yet, you have to decide one way or the other.

    There's a kind of faith that enters here. You will make the best decision you can, with the information you have, and trust that, whatever the outcome, whatever the ramifications, you made the best decision you could, the most compassionate, the most intelligent possible at the time.

    Sure, there are always regrets. But no guilt.

  3. Wish I could remember anything about the article a friend linked in the last year or so that dealt with this, somewhat -- basically talking about those people who see both sides of things and have lots of uncertainty, and how there's so much angst in that but a lot of value, too.

  4. Sarah, that sounds about right, both about the additional problem and about our ultimate response to the dilemma of life being full of dilemmas: do the best you can and accept that you did the best you could. I think "there are always regrets. But no guilt." Sums it up pretty well.

    Marcy, worthwhile angst (as I'm rephrasing what you said) also sounds about right, because I think part of the faith that Sarah's talking about also has to do with a faith that in chewing it over good and looking at it with such depth, you're also making a better decision than you would if you weren't doing that.