Bothersome Small Problems
When you are having problems with specific people, you should probably think of these people’s negative qualities as reflections of your own negative qualities. If other people are having problems with you, and thus an important relationship is not going as well as it could, you need to listen to their concerns and complaints. If the problem has a specific origin, you need to go back to that time where things went wrong.
Sometimes you know that something is wrong, but are not sure what the problem is or how to approach it. In these cases one helpful approach is to look at the other seemingly small but very bothersome things in your life.
There is a popular saying that one should not sweat the small stuff. If that means one should not be overly concerned about insignificant things, that obviously makes sense as by definition insignificant things are not significant. But seemingly small things can often be tremendously significant as they are a manifestation or a metaphor for larger, more important things. So it might be a small thing (to you) that you are not at your son’s baseball game, but to your son it might be a manifestation that you do not care enough about him to put his activities high on the list of things that you need to do. People who are good at relating to others know that while insignificant things can be dismissed, small things often have to be tremendously “sweated” because they are an appearance in miniature of much bigger things.
Lots of people understand this principle about relationships. I discovered a different matter about seemingly small problems that continually bother or annoy you: they can be related to much more significant relationship problems going on at the same time. These small, very bothersome things that seem totally unrelated to the larger problem can be an important clue to solving it as these bothersome things give us further information about the larger problem.
The last paragraph may not seem very clear. A couple examples I discuss in this chapter will make this clearer to you. Furthermore, two of these examples were very helpful in getting Michelle and I involved in our respective significant romantic relationships, so I hope these examples will also give you a sense of the power of this approach.
When I was in New York working as a teaching assistant and professor, I got along fine with the secretaries. But when I moved to Wisconsin, and got a part-time job teaching philosophy, I had ongoing trouble with the secretaries. I didn’t know if it was because I was the lowest professor on the totem pole or something in my personality, but they would often not do their job for me. It got so bad that I would sometimes take my syllabuses to the local printer and pay them to do the Xeroxing rather than ask the departmental secretary to do it.
This trouble had lasted through three different secretaries, all of them women. I had asked the departmental chairperson to clarify to them that I was asking them to do something that was their job, but that only made things better for a while. They continued to not want to do work for me, and so I paid someone else to help me. The department had gotten a new secretary recently and the problem became even worse.
One day Michelle and I were walking along the Wisconsin River discussing this book. We had gone on a walk to discuss the book, and I was telling her about what I had been obsessing over for the last week: the outline of all the chapters of this book. Michelle’s previous input had been extremely important for getting things right in the book. She would say things like “that point doesn’t make sense there,” or “something is really off here.” Her comments often caused me to make major changes in the book. But this time, she was not saying anything. So I asked what was up. She said she was not contributing at the moment as she knew we were going to change the book later; so she thought why bother contributing now.
I was horrified as it was her input that most often caused things to be changed. So if she did not say something now, it would become a self-fulfilling prophecy that things would have to be changed later when she gave her input. The worst thing was that she was dooming me to waste my time doing something of lesser quality that probably would be changed later when she gave her opinion.
I berated her for not caring enough to contribute her thoughts now, and said this was a lousy way to treat me. She agreed she had to change, and she was doing exactly what I said she was doing.
This discussion did not take very long, but as it was ending, I saw two older women walking towards us. They were about forty feet away. I knew, if I continued talking loudly, they would think I was a man arguing with a woman. I was done with making my point to Michelle, but, to amuse these women and because my patron animal is the playful monkey, I kept acting like I was upset with Michelle. As we walked by, one older woman gave Michelle a look of “Men are just like that, always assuming they are right, and all us women can do is put up with it.” After they walked by, Michelle totally agreed with me that the older woman was giving her that kind of look.
Even though I had set the situation up, something about her look bothered me. It was so much of a totally smug, superior look that assumed she knew what the situation was with Michelle and me. In the next few days this older woman’s look kept coming up in my thoughts, bothering me. It was a very weird thing to be bothered about, considering that I had helped set up the situation and had done it for their amusement. It was also a very trivial incident with no impact on my life: I had never seen the women before, Michelle totally agreed with my analysis, and during the rest of our long walk Michelle had made very good contributions to the book.
It was easy to dismiss being bothered by this woman’s smug superior look as it had no importance in my life. But the feeling of being bothered did not go away, instead it got deeper, and I thought about it more often.
I had already figured out that little things that were very bothersome were often an important clue to bigger problems, so I looked at this incident as a clue. I had a bigger problem going on with the secretaries, so I wondered if this smug look could be a clue to that problem.
I saw the problem with the secretaries as one of “they are not doing their job:” as departmental secretaries their main job was to do work for the professors, and they were not doing that. Thinking about the smug look though, I remembered that one of the first things I experienced in coming to Wisconsin from New York was how much more traditional gender roles were in Wisconsin. Thinking about these things, I realized the secretaries probably saw the situation in a whole different way than I did. They probably experienced the situation as I was just another man telling them what to do. The situation probably brought up gender issues for them. These issues probably helped them not notice they were not doing their job, but instead helped them see the situation as me being just another troublesome man in a patriarchal world.
Maybe the secretaries’ issues came out more with me because I was the low man on the totem pole. Or maybe I was just more business-like than other male professors. For whatever reason, if I wanted to deal with the secretaries better, I had to understand I was probably triggering this issue in them. This insight led me to think of practical ways to defuse the situation with my current secretary and get into a much better cycle with her.
The older woman’s smug look immediately stopped bothering me. By sweating the small stuff, I had learnt something that helped me in another much more important area of my life. The lesson I learnt was not some general point about being more patient, loving, or kind, but something specific to my relationships.
By using the same method of looking at a very bothersome situation, Michelle got a vital clue that led her to the first good romantic relationship of her life. She had been focused for three years on how she had to change to get a satisfactory romantic relationship. She was making major progress at changing, when she lost out on an opportunity to make an easy thousand dollars through a medical study involving hair. It turns out that she was one of the few people who qualified for the study, but she had just dyed her hair the night before and this disqualified her from it. She was very upset about the loss of an easy thousand dollars.
To most people, losing out on this money would just have been an unfortunate twist of fate. My outlook, though, was that a very bothersome situation is often related to a bigger problem going on and gives clues to the bigger problem. I was right, and in the chapter on romantic relationships, I describe in detail how I used the insight from the hair problem to help her get her first good romantic relationship.
Michelle was helped in her romantic life by looking at a very bothersome small thing, and so was I.
In 1978, I had fallen in love with Alice Keefe, the woman whom I have been married to for the last 32 years. We were in New Hampshire where she was attending Dartmouth College when I fell in love with her. For the winter term she went to the University of California at Berkeley and I followed her there.
I wanted to marry her, but Alice was unsure about any commitment to me. I had spent the last four years intense devoted to my psychological and spiritual growth and so did not have a job or any conventional social position. She also had many relationship issues that got in the way of getting close to people.
When she finished the term at Berkeley, we started traveling down the Pacific coast together. Then my ass started hurting a lot, like I had been sitting on it for much too long. It was the kind of pain a person gets from an overly long car ride. I was surprised by this pain as I had not been sitting any longer than usual, and my posterior had never hurt like this before.
A few weeks before I had heard about how sometimes our body’s ailments are not random but can be a metaphorical manifestation of our psychological and spiritual states. In this approach, a physical problem that is not obviously caused by a disease or an injury can be a reflection of what is troubling a person on an inner level. In the metaphorical approach, instead of illness being a purely negative phenomenon, it can be a positive guide to better understanding how to follow the current of your life.
I knew my ass hurting was not a physical problem as there was no physical reason for it. Previously, I would have shrugged off this pain as just physical pain with no relationship to anything important. But now I was thinking that little things on the physical level could be an outer manifestation of something importantly askew on the inner level, and so it wasn’t wise to ignore it or stoically endure it. Instead I should see if it was a metaphor to understanding my inner problems.
While this new approach made sense to me, it required a lot of mental and emotional energy to look at myself and see how I might be sitting too much on some inner level. On the other hand, maintaining my present course was easy. So instead of thinking about my pain as a clue to my inner state, I ignored it and hoped it would go away.
However it got much worse. Now the pain felt like I had been sitting on my ass for an extraordinarily long time. After a couple more days of intense pain, I decided I had nothing to lose if I tried this metaphorical method. My bottom was hurting like I was sitting on it too much, so there must be some way on the inner level that I was sitting around too much and not getting up and doing what needed to be done. But what could it be? After a couple of days of thinking, I had no insight and again I wanted to give up.
But prodded by my intense pain, I tried to connect my problem to other things in my life. If I was doing something wrong like sitting too much, it should be connected with other matters in my life. And if I could relate these two seemingly unconnected things, I might get rid of my pain.
Since the only significant thing happening in my life at that time was my relationship with the woman I loved, I wondered if my pain could be connected to her. After thinking for awhile, it gradually occurred to me that I might be “sitting on my ass” too much in my relationship with her. While I wanted to marry her, I was sharing very little with her about the spiritual things I was involved with. I had told her very little about how important my spirituality was to me. For some reason, probably embarrassment, I was keeping that part of my life secret from her. But if we were ever going to get married, she needed to know about these things.
After thinking of these things, I now realized that in my relationship with Alice, I was definitely “sitting on my ass” way too much. I should be telling her everything about the spiritual part of my life. It was stupid to keep that aspect of my life separate from her as she obviously needed to know about it if we were going to be married. I had to get off my ass and really start sharing with her the most important aspect of my life.
I changed my behavior and started sharing the details of my spiritual life with her. Immediately my ass stopped hurting. Furthermore, Alice reciprocated by sharing her feelings more deeply than ever before. It seemed once I wasn’t holding anything back in our relationship, neither was she.
Two days later, Alice and I were walking on a deserted beach of the Pacific Ocean. She was more romantic than ever before, and for the first time, she was seriously thinking of marrying me. Then she looked down and saw something glistening in the sand. She bent down, picked it up, and found it was a man’s gold, wedding ring with five diamonds in it. She handed it to me and it fit my ring finger perfectly. She took finding this ring as she was first thinking of marrying me as a sign from the Universe that we should get married. (Less than a week later we were engaged, and we got married six weeks later. A year after that she had our first baby.)
It was not random that Alice found this wedding ring and I was not surprised by it. This kind of thing had happened many times before as I got better at dealing with the connections in my life and so I had gotten used to these events happening quite often. As you get more connected to the current of the river by clearing away the things that block you from dealing well with your connections, you connect with deeper and deeper waters in the river we are all flowing in. Then wonderful synchronicities or meaningful coincidences can happen.
The Swiss psychologist Carl Jung coined this word synchronicity to describe meaningful coincidences when it seemed like the larger universe and the individual are flowing together in some way. For Jung, the notion of synchronicities was evidence of his theory of archetypes which he thought was part of our unconscious. Some people might think that when I discuss becoming aware of deeper currents in our river, I believe like Jung that on a deeper level all humans have inner psychological archetypes like that of the warrior or maiden which shape our experience. Jungians have used this notion of archetypes as the basis of the men’s movement and the theory that before warrior civilizations with male gods (like Jahweh, Jesus, and Allah) there was a female dominated civilization with female goddesses who had more peaceful nurturing values. Jung thought of these archetypes as the deeper currents of human life and as we became more aware, we experienced connection with these deeper archetypes.
While I am using words about connecting to deeper things in the currents of our river that may seem to some to be similar to Jungian ideas, scholars have shown that his theory is based on very shoddy research and wishful thinking. Unfortunately, it does not matter much to his followers whether these things are true or not. They think that if it helps them deal with their life now, truth does not matter. They seem to think only over-fastidious intellectuals care about truth. Unfortunately, while some untrue things will help you for a little while, the word “true” means connected in the right way to reality. We have to be connected to the truth of things for them to work in the long run. So I am not referring to Jungian archetypes when I am talking about connecting with the deeper currents.
I am not sure how exactly to refer to these deeper currents except with the words God or the Tao or the Flow. I know from personal experience that connecting with these deeper currents can bring these wonderful synchronicities into our lives quite often. One also experiences what the psychologist Abraham Maslow called peak experiences, times when the world seems more joyful, meaningful and purposeful. Most people do not experience these synchronicities and peak experiences as they do not get connected to the deeper currents in the river.
It is hard to face the problems that you have in relationships. Who wants to deal with all those negative feelings? But as you do that, not only do your relationships improve, but there might be many times when you connect with the deeper current in the river of life and thus experience wonderful synchronicities and ecstatic peak experiences.
After this book is written, I am hoping to get it published. It would be helpful if you tell me any questions you may have or any parts that you have found helpful. If you have sections that you do not understand or you think are stupid or misguided, I would very much appreciate if you tell me. It is much better to hear these comments now, when I can easily change things, then later, after I have published a book. I will reflectively consider your concerns and, if warranted, I will change things to incorporate your concerns into the book. You can email me at email@example.com. Please put “About Connections,” into the subject heading of the email.
This book was written by Joseph Waligore with the help of Michelle Stage. Joseph teaches philosophy and religious studies at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point. More information about him can be found at his MySpace profile or his Facebook profile. Michelle works in a bank in St. Paul, Minnesota as a learning consultant and in a Minneapolis night club as a dominatrix.
This website is one of four websites I have. Another one, www.followingtheflow.com is for spiritually oriented people and discusses very similar ideas from a more spiritually oriented perspective. Another one, www.josephwaligore.com is for academically or intellectually oriented people. It has my writings about spiritual philosophies such as Stoicism, Socrates, the Deists, the Enlightenment period, and the rise of modern science. Another one, www.spiritualcritiques.com, has critiques of many popular spiritual teachers and spiritual teachings. It looks at teachers like Eckhart Tolle, Deepak Chopra, Ken Wilber, and Pema Chodron. It also looks at teachings like “All is One,” “The Hundredth Monkey,” and “If it Rings True, it is True.”
There is a Facebook group called Flowing. People interested in meeting other people who are interested in these ideas and/or participating in discussions about these ideas are invited to join the group.
Many people reach this site through keyword advertisements. It might be of interest that Joseph got the money for these ads through his day trading profits.