There are some problems you just can’t solve. You go around and around until your head aches, but you keep coming back to the same place you were. Every conceivable alternative is either unworkable or leads to unacceptable consequences. Most often the problem involves another person. It may even be that person’s problem really, but because you care about that person, or you are otherwise directly affected, the problem becomes yours.
We feel responsible for the happiness of those we care about. If they are unhappy, the first impulse is to try to fix it somehow. We offer advice: “If you could just…” ; “If you would only…” ; “Have you tried…?” Maybe the advice is rejected. Maybe it is taken, but it doesn’t work. The problem remains.
If the problem is truly your own, you have more control over it. You can’t control what others do, even though you may try to influence them. You have far more control over yourself. You have a say in your choices, and in the way you react to the choices of others. If it is something you can do something about, you can take the necessary steps to solve it. If you can do nothing, you can face your problem and say, “To hell with you. I’ve wasted enough time worrying about you.” And you let it go.
When it involves someone else, it’s more difficult. It breaks your heart to see them suffer. You continue to try to solve the problem for them until you hit that wall where you’ve done all you can. You’ve worried it to a standstill. You can continue to be there for them, to offer support or encouragement, but until something changes you have to accept that you can’t always solve other people’s problems for them no matter how much you want to. You have to let it go.
But what if the problem lies in what others expect of you? “I would be happy if only you would…” “I am disappointed because you don’t…” “I am miserable because you’re not…”
Now the calculus gets really complicated. How much does that person’s happiness matter to you? How difficult is what they are asking you to do? To what degree are you responsible for someone else’s happiness? How reasonable are their expectations of you? What would be the consequences of doing what they want – or not?
If the two sides of the equation are obviously unbalanced, the answer is easy. If you are struggling to pay your bills you are not likely to hand over all the money in your wallet to a stranger who does not appear to be in dire need simply because he might grin and say, “Gee, thanks!” But when it is someone whose happiness matters to you very much, a child or a spouse, many of us would say no sacrifice is too great.
Giving up one’s own happiness for the sake of another is thought of as noble. But it can also result in the battered wife. Or the spoiled child.
Extreme examples are easy to judge, but those infinite shades of gray in between can make for situations that seem insoluble.
A very difficult problem. And very difficult — perhaps impossible — to let go.