Keeping Perspective When You Have a Really, Really Big Problem

When you encounter a seemingly serious (but very common) human problem, it’s tempting to blow it all out of proportion and turn it into a major stumbling block that paralyzes you from moving forward. Social conditioning teaches us that losing someone close to you, getting a divorce, or being diagnosed with cancer are huge, life-wrenching issues. But that’s merely the ego’s perspective. In the grand scheme of human existence, such problems are about as common as dirt.

When you fall prey to one of the human wake-up calls, take a moment to consider the larger reality, and use that as a means of regaining your perspective. With the right perspective, any problem becomes either solvable or acceptable. Here are some examples:

Your problem: Your best friend commits suicide on your birthday (this actually happened to my wife when she was in college, and no, my wife wasn’t the one who killed herself).

The larger reality: Over 150,000 people die every day on this planet. In the USA alone, about 80 people commit suicide every day. 60% of those who succeed (or fail, depending on how you look at it) do it with a firearm.

Keeping perspective: We’re all going to die sometime, and some people choose to accelerate the process for one reason or another. Let someone else’s death serve as a reminder that your time here is limited too. Many people who experience tragic loss eventually recognize it as a wake-up call.

While my wife, Erin, was in college, her best friend and sorority sister committed suicide on Erin’s birthday. This event sent Erin into a period of social withdrawal, but she eventually came out of it. In fact her best friend’s death helped Erin see just how trivial her own problems were by comparison. And many signs appeared to convince Erin that her best friend was still with her, watching over her from someplace else.

Death might be a striking blow from the perspective of your individual ego, but it’s about as common as you get. Everything that’s alive here on earth eventually dies. Plants die. Animals die. People die. Even the people you know right now. And even you.

Your problem: You’re going through a divorce or breakup, or you expect that your supposedly committed relationship is coming to an end.

The larger reality: Most marriages end in divorce, with a surge of divorces occurring between the ages of 28 and 32. And other relationships don’t have it any easier. Many relationships that don’t end in breakup or divorce certainly aren’t happy and fulfilling for the couple. They may have been genuine soulful partnerships once, but now they’re just living arrangements; the separation has already occurred in the couple’s hearts.

Keeping perspective: Human relationships are complicated and sometimes unpredictable. They don’t always turn out the way you’d expect. It’s possible to make no mistakes and still see your relationship come to an end. By all means make every reasonable effort to salvage your relationship if it still has value for both of you, but if your relationship still isn’t working, then let go with love, even if there are kids involved. And if you’ve already broken up, then let go of the blame and bitterness, and simply forgive yourself and your ex-partner. Even if your partner betrayed you in some way, recognize that you aren’t perfect either. Guess what… you’re both human, and it’s OK that your relationship didn’t last forever. Nothing ever does.

Social conditioning teaches us gross misconceptions about relationships and especially marriage. Marriage is viewed as a final destination, a lifetime bonding, when for most people it’s nothing of the sort. Marriage is simply a continuation of our experience of human relationships. It’s a middle piece, not an ending or a beginning. Realize that no human relationship is ever permanent. Whether it ends in divorce, separation, or death, it will eventually end. It’s only a matter of time. Every beginning flows towards an ultimate ending, and every ending flows into new beginnings. Instead of fighting this cycle, learn to enjoy the ride without becoming overly attached to the past. Simply enjoy what you have in the present, even if you’re alone, and then focus your intentions on what you’d like to experience next.

On March 29 my wife and I will celebrate our 8-year anniversary, and we’ve been in a committed relationship for almost 12 years now. Every year is different. Our relationship is constantly reinventing itself. Sometimes the main component of our relationship is our friendship, and other times we’re passionate lovers (my personal favorite). Sometimes we come together to achieve mutual goals like parenting our kids, and other times we allow space between us to work on our individual pursuits. Sometimes we couldn’t be more compatible, and other times we frustrate the hell of out each other. Will our human relationship last forever? Of course not. Like any other marriage, it will eventually end in death, divorce, or separation. We may die separately, we may die together, we may eventually grow in different directions. But the realization that our human relationship is temporary makes our present moments together that much more precious. No human relationship is endowed with the privilege of permanence. Non-human relationships perhaps… but while you’re here on earth, your earthbound relationships are just as mortal as the flesh they inhabit.

When you get caught up in your own ego, it’s easy to lose perspective. When you catch yourself doing this, take a step back and see how your problems appear against the larger backdrop of human existence. Even a seemingly serious problem like a death, divorce, or disease is only a minor speck in the grand scheme of things. What’s a truly serious problem? A 10-mile-wide asteroid smashing into the earth would probably qualify. The next time you start to snivel about your personal problems, just think of how it might have felt to be a dinosaur at the time your entire species and many others were about to be wiped off the face of this planet for good. And even an asteroid collision is still a fairly trivial problem from the perspective of the entire physical universe.

Your personal problems are like icebergs. Perhaps 5% of them can actually be seen by others in external reality. The other 95% are in your imagination. But unlike real icebergs, your imagined portion is subject to your conscious control. You can feed your problems with fear and turn them into gigantic threats, or you can shrink them by broadening your perspective. When you artificially inflate your problems, you reduce your ability to solve them. But when you shrink them in your mind, they soon become relatively easy to either solve or accept.

Sometimes the real solution to your problem is not very difficult at all. You just overcomplicate it in your imagination. All it takes is a neutral outside observer to inject some reality. Someone close to you passed away? Grieve, get over it, and move on. You and your spouse have become irreparably incompatible? Move out and get a divorce. You just got laid off? Get a new job, or start your own business. You’re broke, deeply in debt, and have no way to pay your bills? File for bankruptcy; maybe lose your home. Diagnosed with terminal cancer? Do your best to find a reason and a way to live, but if that doesn’t work out, then put your affairs in order and say, “hasta la bye bye.”

Many common human problems have fairly simple solutions, but if your problem has no workable solution, then it’s simply a fact to be accepted. There’s no need to get all whiny and mopey about it. Cry your way through it if you must, curse the universe for its cruelty and unfairness, but in the grand scheme of things, it’s really no big whoop. You’re one among billions, and your problem just isn’t that special, regardless of how important you think you are.