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Jake calls me up because he is looking for a solution to his problems. He fills me in on his relationship issues. After more than 20 years of marriage his wife has decided to move on. She told him he could stay in the house for the sake of the kids, but would have to sleep in another room. He thought that wasn’t much of a life, and not much of an example for the children. He got a townhouse and compared to his old home it’s pretty small.
The problem didn’t start here. There’s been tension for years. Three years ago he looked out into the future and realized that at a certain point the kids would be moved out and it would just be the two of them. He thought he should do something to improve the situation and get closer with his wife as there wasn’t much connection there. Attempts to communicate and share lead nowhere. His efforts to be more affectionate were rebuked. He would try to talk and she didn’t want to. After years of failing you just stop trying. Wanting some kind of connection, and not finding it at home he began perusing the internet. This led to more problems with his wife.
When Jake is in his townhome he’s afraid of being alone and not having anyone for the rest of his life. Old patterns of jealousy from high school resurfaced. Late at night his head is filled with annoying thoughts about what she is doing. He feels compelled to get in his car and drive over to her house (his old house). As an engineer he is intellectually smart enough to know it is silly. At the same time, there are forces of emotion driving him to behaviors he doesn’t want to do. He goes back to his small townhouse, and is sad at the direction of his new life. He longs for a happier time with his wife. If only she would open up to him he hopes. That would change everything.
Jake is considering the financial costs of divorce. He doesn’t like it. On top of that, he’s feeling that his 13 year old daughter is being corrupted by what his wife is telling her. He is being made out to be the bad guy. Jake shares all this and then asks me, “What should I do?”
“Would you like a silver bullet solution to the problems?” I ask.
“Yes,” he says with hope.
We hope for such an answer. As we hope, we focus all our attention on that fantasy of how life could be different if only…. (fill in the blank… with some bit about how we or someone else should be different than they are).
I tell Jake, “You have a Tree Problem.”
“What?” he says with a sense of confusion.
“You have a Tree Problem,” I say again as if that explains everything.
“I don’t understand,” Jake replies. “What do you mean I have a Tree Problem.”
My little diversion trick is working. His focus has shifted a tiny bit to my comment and with it his emotions have changed. His attention is no longer fixated completely fixed on his problem. He’s off balance with my little Judo response and that makes it easier to move him a bit further. Curiosity and confusion is a big step away from sadness and hopelessness. It’s also a better state to make changes and work on things from. He’s already taken two steps out of feeling trapped and hopeless and he hasn’t realized it yet.
I begin to explain the “Tree Problem”.
If you have a big tree in your backyard and you want to get rid of it, can you go over to it and push it out? No. You will push and push, make your self tired and after a while you will feel defeated. You will conclude that you are not strong enough, a failure, feel overwhelmed, and that it is hopeless. That tree is too big with all it’s branches, not to mention it is also rooted to the ground. But what if you get an ax? Maybe it is a dull ax. You hack away at the trunk and spend all day and make it half way through. You might look at that tree and conclude that you haven’t accomplished a thing because the tree is still there. It’s a poor assessment of progress but it is the a common misinterpretation we make when working on our own issues.
What if you got a file for your ax? Your ax would be sharper and you might have gotten it down in the first day. You wouldn’t have gotten it down in the first swing, but maybe in the first day. For a really big tree, maybe it would take a couple days. Of course a chain saw would be faster. Perhaps it comes down in a few minutes. But with a chain saw you need other items as well. You need a sharp chain and that requires a different kind of file. You’ll need oil to lubricate the chain and gasoline to run the chain saw. It might take a bit more work to get the tools and equipment, but you could take the tree down faster. Of course there is fear in making such changes. What if in making all these changes the tree falls on our house. There’s fear in solving a tree problem because there’s going to be consequences in other areas of our life.
Now even if you get that chain saw and fell that big tree in your backyard the job isn’t done. It’s laying on the ground and it’s too big to move. So you take your saw or your ax and you start cutting off the limbs. You cut the trunk into short lengths. Then you take your ax and split the large trunk logs into pieces small enough to move. Once each is piece small enough you can pick it up and move it out of your back yard. That’s how you solve a tree problem. You break it down into a bunch of manageable size pieces that you can handle.
If we look at a situation like Jake’s and try to solve it with one stroke or in one day we will feel overwhelmed and helpless. It can’t be done. We can’t see an solution much less a way to get there. Often when we face such issues like divorce we are dealing with circumstances and problems we have never faced before. We do not have the tools or the training to deal with splitting out the finances, addressing the challenges our children, will go through, the emotions we will go through, or the prospect of starting a new life. We might be educated, successful, professional adults, but we find ourself in a situation we have no tools, training, or experience in handling. We are facing a tree that doesn’t want to move and we can’t come up with any silver bullet solutions like we are used applying in other areas of our life. Our silver bullet answers seem to revolve around someone else changing and they don’t seem to want to.
Why is Jake looking for a bullet to address his Tree Problem? Somewhere in his belief system he assumes there is one. You can tell because he is looking and asking for one. It keeps him running in circles chasing a hope filled dream instead of focusing on tools and actions that will work.
That tree isn’t going to be removed by a bullet and the sooner he realizes that the sooner he will stop wasting time looking for one. It’s an uncomfortable truth to accept, but the pain is very short lived compared to living in never ending hope and frustration that happens when we chase an illusion based answer.
If it was a gopher in his yard maybe it could be solved with one well-placed bullet. But Jake clearly has a Tree Problem. There are many different branches. Coming to terms with the end of his marriage, overcoming his jealousy issues, dividing up the finances, becoming comfortable in his new life, and communicating all these changes to his 13 year old daughter are all branches of the same tree. It’s going to take more than a week to deal with each branch.
So how do you solve a Tree Problem?
Like hiking to the top of a mountain, one step at a time . There will be times on the trail you are going up, and times you are going downhill losing elevation. But even when you seem to be losing elevation you will be moving forward on your path. Most of the time you won’t be able to see the top where you hope to end up. You have to have some faith that it will be okay when you get there. You also can’t imagine what it will look like from up there because you have never been there before. What you can do is keep taking care of the step in front of you. Putting one foot in front of the other is how you make a long journey. One step at a time on your Pathway To Happiness, that’s how you get there. There are some possibilities for short cuts at times, but you have to be walking on the path to find them. You’ll often find clues to those short cuts from people who are familiar with the pathway.
So I leave you with a couple clarifying and hopefully practical questions to ask about the challenges and changes you are faced with?
Do you have a gopher problem or do you have a Tree Problem?
And do the type of solutions you are looking for fit the type of problem you have? If not, are you trapped in a cycle of hope for a quick fix solution and frustration that you can’t find one? If you realize you are in such a trap then you’ve taken another step on your Pathway To Happiness.