Problem Defined

Dear Eleanor and Wesley,

I’m convinced that every Dad holds some version of the same sick and twisted dream: I find a magic hammer. Though unremarkable in appearance, it is a means to control the possibility of pain.  With it, I can pound any opportunity for hurt out of your life. With a firm grip, I start construction on a utopia where you will be happy. At the first sight of evil or malice, I smash the danger. You grow without ever knowing an inch of the breadth or depth of our human capacity injure one another. I know, sick right?

This dream is sick and twisted because it turns into the curse that causes Fairtale Princesses to be locked away in towers. The same one that causes well-intentioned parents to invent all sorts of myths and regulations to keep the world at a safe distance. The reality is that life hurts. There is nothing I can do to keep it out. In the short term I can protect you from many kinds of hurt. Long term, knowing the struggle is coming, you will need the grit to stand on your own two feet. 

Pain in life often comes in the form of problems, like when your offspring have tag teamed a coordinated assault on the natural sleep cycle, precisely executed each and every night for months. At least you two are working together. Considering this, I was confronted with a dictionary entry:

Problem (n.) a question or puzzle that needs to be solved; a cause of unhappiness.

Two definitions. Two vastly different responses. Are your problems an obstacle to be conquered or an inevitable and persistent producer of pain? Do not be too hasty in your choice.

On the one hand, obstacles overcome can create the moments most worth celebrating. I think of Francisco, an 8th grade student from my second year of teaching who had cerebral palsy. When he was young, as he scooted around with his walker, people prepared him for the significant likelihood that his near future contained a wheelchair that he would sit in for the rest of his life. It should have crushed the dream he shared with every 6 year old boy of glory on the soccer field. I’ve never seen grit like the grit I saw in Francisco. Wheelchairs were not his thing, and so he worked and worked and worked. My second year, I was the Jr. High soccer coach. I can not do justice to the satisfaction on that young man’s face as he took his hard earned place on the field. He ran sideline to sideline, took the hits, and made the plays all season long.  Every step he took, as he moved among his able-bodied peers, was a victory and a celebration. 

On the other hand, not every point of his journey was a victory and not every moment was a triumph. There were times in the classroom when his frustration was palpable. Some moments create pain that goes deeper than a problemetized solution. I can not begin to assume any comprehension of his experience, but I know I’ve had some moments where all there is to do in the midst of pain is face it and sit with it. Hurts do not always have easy solutions, and to ignore them or look for quick outs is to cut off the path that leads to growth. For some problems, simply admitting unhappiness is exactly what needs to be done. 

If I had it all, I’d take the magic hammer and we’d be done with the conversation. Construction would commence and we’d be good from here on out. No pain, no tears. Unfortunately, that day has not yet come and I am not the one with that kind of Dad power. The best I can share with you is a mind that likes solving problems and a love that will shoulder whatever burden you have to share. I do not always take the right approach, and it drives your mom crazy. But we are getting better at it, and love covers a multitude of wrongs.



  1. I love this…It is honest. Wouldn’t we love all moments in our children’s lives to be problem-free! Yet that is not realistic. I have raised my own children…but now, with 2 precious grandsons, I could howl at the prospect of the ugly lessons life will eventually teach them. I can only hope most of those lessons are not learned the hard way, and that they have the good sense to listen and benefit from the experience of others. Well done for cataloging your own experience for the benefit of yours. May they please listen…And learn. 🙂

  2. You totally captured what my dad used to say to me when I was younger: “It’s my job to protect you, when you were born, you gave me the gift of worry. It doesn’t matter how old you are, I will always worry about you!”

  3. Motherhen, I share the same hope. The hard way is a rough way to go. Dr. Jekyll, your Dad sounds like a great Dad. I hope I can give my kids the same sense of safety.

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