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The Never Ending Painting Project And Life’s Problems

“I’m almost done,” I said aloud to myself.  I stood up and shook out the kinks that had formed along my neck and shoulders and legs while painting the hallway baseboards.  I would be glad to be done with this painting project.   I hoped to never again have to paint the baseboards and trim  in our house.  If not never, then at least for a very, very long time.

I walked into a bedroom off the hallway to admire the baseboards I’d previously painted.

“What the?”

What happened to these baseboards?  They were scuffed, the paint was peeling off in a spot or two (maybe it was three, but not more than four), and the color was a little dull.  The white didn’t shine on these baseboards like the freshly-painted hallway baseboards.

Was it already time to paint them again?  I’d thought I was nearly done with this painting project.  I’d started painting the baseboards sometime before, a specific date I couldn’t remember.  Maybe it was the year before or perhaps even the year before the year before.  Given my current rate of progress, the rest of my days in this house were going to be spent painting these baseboards.

****

“I’m just going to avoid that person,” my friend said.

My friend’s relationship with that person, a person once considered close and trusted to this friend, had disintegrated.  Words had been exchanged, feelings hurt, trust betrayed, and nothing had been resolved between the two former friends.  The only thing they could agree on was their desire to never see or speak to one another again.

“What do I do?” he asked.

I knew my friend, I knew this wasn’t the first time a friendship had gone sour.  I took a deep breath before answering his question.  “If you don’t figure out why this friendship fell apart, if you don’t learn how to make it work, the same thing will keep happening.”

I felt good about the advice I’d given.  Life is a journey full of challenges similar to climbing up a mountain.  Master one, conquer another, and then move on to the next one.  Once you’ve overcome one problem, you are the expert and never have to deal with it again.  You’ll never be tripped up, knocked down, or bothered again by that same pesky problem.  You’ve become wise at the art of living and navigating the challenges of life.

A year or so later, I had another thought about the rationale behind the advice I’d given:

What a crock.

****

“Really?  Really?!  This again!  AGAIN!!”  A sigh exhaled.  “I can’t believe I’m dealing with the same problems as ten and twenty years ago.  I thought I’d be past this by now.   Why do I feel like I’m walking in circles?”

****

I sat across the table from a different friend.  We were eating lunch at a Mexican restaurant.  He had chosen this moment, this lunch, to tell me about himself.  He was an addict.  He’d started with alcohol, moved onto drugs, starting with pot, then cocaine, and eventually heroin.  He was telling me this not because he needed my help.  To be honest, I wasn’t sure why he was telling me this.

He put his fork down and looked me straight in the eye.  “Even though I’ve been sober for a long time, fifteen years, I can’t remember a single day when I didn’t want to get high.  In fact, right now, sitting here with you, I’ve probably thought about going home and getting high a couple of times.”

I tried to understand, to empathize, but this didn’t gel with my understanding of life’s problems, of conquering and moving on.  Hadn’t he conquered the problem of addiction and moved up the mountain?  Why did it seem like he was walking in circles?  Why was he facing the same thing every day?

****

Another friend recently suggested a book to me, Learning to Fall: The Blessings of An Imperfect Life by Phillip Simmons. In his book, Simmons writes of learning to live in the face of death.  At the age of thirty-five, in the midst of dealing with his own set of problems, a new one arrived. He was diagnosed with ALS and given just a few years to live.

With a death sentence hanging over his head, he thought (as would I) that some of life’s problems would now seem irrelevant.  Yet, Simmons wrote that he felt like he was facing the same things over and over again.  “Too often the repeated challenges and hardships of our lives seem mere repetition without advancement…A certain amount of this is inevitable. Life, after all, is messy business, and there’s a natural ebb and flow to the process of growing up and learning what it means to be human. Still, we’d like to think we’re not going in circles.”

“Still, we’d like to think we’re not going in circles.”

Yeah, we’d like to think that.

****

I want to believe, maybe like you, that when a problem or issue is conquered that the problem has actually been conquered.  The problem is in the past.  The problem has been dealt with and it will never rear its head again.  But as I’m discovering, we face the same challenges and issues and problems over and over and over again.  They might look a little different, sound a little different, and act a little different, but they are the same challenge.  We do walk in circles.

But, you may be thinking to yourself, isn’t it hopeless, maybe even fatalistic, to think that we’re going to be facing the same set of problems over and over again?

Hopelessness is never seeing a way to overcome the challenge that will keep coming or even a way to endure the problem with dignity.  Fatalism is the belief that I don’t have any chance of success against my issues.

But knowing the problem is coming and then discovering a way to endure or overcome or even rise above that problem, well, that is hope.  The problem might hit me hard, the problem might knock me down, but I will still get up.

We might even call this maturity.  Maturity might be recognizing, and even accepting, that my own problems are going to keep coming, that they might never go away.  Maturity might be understanding that I no longer need to be frustrated and irritated by the continual presence of my problems.  Maturity might be allowing myself the grace to be frustrated by the problem.  Maturity is not the elimination of problems, but learning to navigate them, sometimes gracefully, sometimes not so gracefully.

Towards the end of his book, Simmons, feeling the effects of ALS, wrote, “What we can control (in facing our own problems) is who we are along the way.  We can control how much energy, compassion, and integrity we bring to our journey.”

****

“Haven’t I already painted these baseboards?”

“Haven’t I already faced this challenge or that problem?”

Maybe.  And whether I have or I have not isn’t the question.  The question is how I will face them next.

 

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