Why Understanding Your Problems Is Not The Same As Solving Them

I am amazed how many people think it is more important to know about the problem rather than do something about it.

Maybe it’s articles in Cosmo, pop psychology books or diluted Freudian-ism that gives people the idea that if they understand the problem well enough it will change.

I think that is a dangerous misunderstanding, but it’s not a new one.

More than 2,500 years ago the Buddha addressed the same confusion with this teaching story.

In a battle a man is hit with a poisoned arrow. The doctor is called and arrives ready to take out the arrow before the poison can spread and kill the man.
The doctor is just about to pull out the arrow when the man stops him and asks:

“What wood is this arrow made of?”

The doctor tells him “What!? I have got to get this arrow out of you before you die.”

The man replies: “Not until I know more about this arrow and the man who shot me.”

“What kind of feathers are at the end of this arrow?”

The doctor says “What are you talking about? I must remove this arrow or you will die.”

“Not until I understand fully what has happened to me”, says the man.

The conversation continues in the same vein as the man asks more questions in an effort to understand the problem.

“What bird did they come from?”

“What kind of poison is on the arrow tip?”

“Who made the arrow?”

“Which blacksmith made the point?”

“How tall was the man who shot the arrow?”

“Who are his family?”

“What tribe does he belong to?”

By this time the poison is in much too deep and the man dies.

Have you ever spent days trying to understand something, coming to profound conclusions about a problem, and yet, it remains, just as big and bad as ever it was.

Wouldn’t it be better to try to pull out the problem arrow and leave the understanding of it until after you are well?

But, how? Don’t you need to understand the problem to fix it?

There are (at least) two kinds of understanding: what something means and what to do to change it.

The wounded man was focused on the story of what the arrow meant, the doctor was focused on what to do about it.

The wounded man’s story was interesting in a philosophical, passing the time of day, kind of way, but it changed nothing.

The doctor’s interest was practical; focused on solving the problem so the man can be saved.

If you had a problem which kind of understanding would you find most useful?

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