Happy Problems

Kim Stafford, The Muses Among Us

Kim Stafford tells the story of how whenever he or his siblings complained to their father about something, his father would say, “Well, that’s a happy problem!” He narrates this story in his book, The Muses among Us: Eloquent Listening and Other Pleasures of the Writer’s Craft—a collection of short essays that present perspectives on life that everyone should hear.

We are trained early on to think problems are bad things and to be fearful of making mistakes. Each one of us can tell our own sob-stories—and some of those stories are nigh unto horror stories—about how we learned to be afraid of mistakes or how we orchestrated our lives to make sure we avoided problems.

But the truth is, life would be stale if there weren’t problems. There is not living breath without some form of conflict or tension or problem. It’s not uncommon to hear someone say, “I don’t handle conflict well.” There was a time in my life when I felt protective of such people. But I eventually realized that conflict is a given in life. Always. And for a grown-up person to announce, “I don’t handle conflict well,” is akin to saying, “I never really handled the potty-training thing very well.” Not something we would brag about!

Conflict—problems—create life. That’s not to say every conflict or problem is “good.” But there is never a problem that can’t produce good. That truth lies at the root of the old saw, “Make lemonade out of lemons.” There are some difficulties, to be sure, with that perspective … especially if we use it to deny the sour of the lemon.

“Happy Problems” doesn’t mean that the problems aren’t real problems. And to call a problem “happy” absolutely doesn’t mean that you just accept it as a given. No, the problem is meant to be solved! Or to be investigated. Or to be pondered. A problem demands that we think. That we act. And that’s what’s happy about it. Problems force us to re-evaluate, to imagine new ways of approaching something, to push against the old, too-trusted answers. Problems demand that we play with new possibilities.

The trick is to place our confidence in ourselves, in our own creative ability to solve the problem. Go ahead and fill the crossword puzzle in ink! It won’t hurt a soul. Take on the challenge. And then scribble out when you guess wrong. That’s okay, too. Let the problem lead you to make new connections, remember things you thought you’d forgotten—like the last name of that guy who played the M.E. on that TV show back in the 80’s. What was his name? Boing! There it is, and you didn’t even know you knew. And you wouldn’t have ever known that you knew if you hadn’t tried to work that problem of a crossword puzzle. It’s a happy problem, that! Granted, there’s no real reason for you to remember that Quincy was his name. But just recently you probably said to someone “I have such a bad memory.” And aha! You don’t! You just remembered something weird because a puzzle asked you to.

We respond to puzzles with Aha! It’s a good and invigorating feeling. It’s a happy problem!

This is even true when we can’t solve the problem. Sometimes we get as far as we can and just can’t figure out the rest of it. That’s okay! It’s okay not to know the answer. It’s okay, even, to get the answer wrong.

The German poet Rilke is oft-quoted on this matter. He wrote to a young poet and advised him to “learn to love the questions themselves.” This is hard for some folk. I’ve taught for decades, and it still astonishes me how quickly the hands fly up when I pose some question. Before they’ve even given themselves time to hear the full question, certainly no time to chew on the question, to delight in the question and all the new pathways it opens, the students shoot those hands into the air and know the answer. We should give them all buzzers so they could play Jeopardy!

But life isn’t a game of Jeopardy and questions aren’t meant to be answers that we know the questions to! Stop and think about that for a moment. Because that’s exactly what Jeopardy is—answers that we’re supposed to know the questions to. But Rilke was recommending, no urging his young friend in a different direction altogether.

To rush into an answer or—perhaps even worse—to be sure that we already know the answer to the question, that’s a sure way to end learning, to end growth, to stop an impulse to play before it finds breath to keep it alive. Live inside the questions … for that’s where we thrive.

Welcome the Happy Problems!