Are You Part of the Problem or Part of the Solution?
Principle: Critical thinking
“Are you part of the problem or part of the solution?” This is a cliché often heard in AA meetings. Usually, it’s said to get people to think about their attitudes: are you positive or negative? Excited or morose? Involved or avoidant? Self-explanatory, perhaps. But as with most clichés (especially those pertaining to personal development), by looking deeper we can extract even more meaning and, if we’re lucky, uncover more profound truths about ourselves and about our human nature in general.
First, let’s look at the problem. In AA, the problem is typically a negative attitude, which will, if indulged, eventually lead you back to self-destructive behavior. Such behavior can take myriad forms but essentially involves doing things that aren’t in your own self-interest. Symptoms of being part of the problem include, but are not limited to:
• Complaining a lot
• Blaming other people for your problems
• Feeling sorry for yourself
• Acting more helpless than you really are
• Holding grudges (also known as resentments)
• Avoiding introspection (also known as personal inventory).
The solutions, then, include, but are not limited to:
• Looking for the positive in situations
• Taking accountability for your actions
• Forgiving others their shortcomings and wrongdoings
• Developing the habit of introspection.
At first glance, it seems to be a simple matter of acting more positively. And that is absolutely true, and valuable advice on its own. But there’s more here than just behavior modification. If you see this cliché merely as advice on how to behave, then you’re seeing only its surface. You can glean a lot more from it if you consider its underlying meaning.
If you’re engaging in problem behavior, I think the pertinent question to ask yourself is: why? Why am I so negative, critical, resentful? Why do I act like I’m less capable than I really am? Why do I avoid looking at myself? The answer, the true answer, will probably surprise you. You’re likely to think it has to do with being stubborn, closed-minded, having bad habits, being an addict; you fill in the blank, because we all have these labels we give ourselves for why we do the things we do. But these labels themselves are part of the problem.
Labeling ourselves is limiting, you see. It doesn’t go far enough. Whenever we say we’re “stubborn” or “closed-minded” or “angry” or anything else, we have a tendency to settle there, to look no further. This is true not just in personal development, but in all areas of life. If we label another person, we tend to always see him through the filter of that label. The same goes for thoughts, beliefs, nationalities, professions and pretty much everything else.
But labels are particularly damaging when we apply them to ourselves, because they hinder a deeper search into our behavior, so they get us stuck. Yes, it’s good to know you’re stubborn, angry, or closed-minded, and it’s good to work at modifying these tendencies: holding your tongue, being responsible, not indulging in self-pity (for example). But if you really want to change on a core level, to free yourself from the burden of anger or blaming or feeling like a perpetual victim (or all of the above), then you have to do more than this.
You have to learn to love yourself unconditionally. And you have to do so by developing the habit of critical thinking.
All addictive, sabotaging, negative, helpless, and blaming behavior stems from a lack of self-love. (I’m not going to go into why this is the case. The spiritual literature of the world—Buddhist in particular—is full of more than ample evidence of the damage we do by not loving ourselves enough.) But usually we aren’t aware of this. We don’t get this far in the reasoning process. Instead, we get to a label, and if it fits, we stop there.
Without deeper awareness, though, we eventually hit a crisis point (another version of whatever got us down the road of personal growth and/or sobriety to begin with; a bottom; a dark night of the soul), and we do one of two things: we either succumb to the despair and backslide into old ways of dealing with our problems, or we go deeper. This is where critical thinking comes in, for it is not possible to go deeper without it. Furthermore, since this is the ongoing process of personal development—that is, if we’re on a path of personal growth, we will continue to have crises and continue to go deeper and deeper to work through them, for that’s what the examined life is about—critical thinking is what will carry us through crisis after crisis (or, if you prefer, growth opportunity after growth opportunity). Critical thinking is the key to moving forward not only in personal growth, but life in general.
It may seem ironic that deep, abiding self-love can only be arrived at by critical thinking. It should be an emotional process, you think, one that involves getting in touch with your feelings. But that’s what critical thinking does. Feelings are muddy and messy and, in and of themselves, unable to lead us to solutions. If we aren’t able to be rational about them, they can be very problematic. It is only when we apply a sustained and earnest analysis (the personal inventory) to our inner world that our feelings, self-love in particular, come to real fruition.
What do I mean by critical thinking? Critical thinking is simply the skill of being rational, but this is more difficult than it might sound, especially in the realm of our own psyches. It’s very easy to see ourselves how we want to see ourselves and dig only as deep as doesn’t cause any discomfort. It’s very hard to develop the habit of earnest introspection, of looking objectively at ourselves and dealing honestly with what we find. It’s so hard, in fact, that we have Steps and sponsors and books and meetings and clichés to help us. All 12 Step literature (and much secular self-help literature) devotes a great deal of space to this issue. Nothing is more valuable to sustained growth than developing the habit of honest self-appraisal, and nothing is more conducive to self-love, because the closer you get to understanding who you really are, the harder it becomes to not love yourself. (Again, I’m not going to go into why. It’s too big a topic, and something you have to figure out for yourself, anyway. I’ll just say that it has to do with our True Nature as spiritual beings.)
Developing the habit of critical thinking will serve you well in all aspects of life. You’ll be a better problem solver. You’ll understand people better. You’ll be more confident. You’ll be more curious. You’ll be more skeptical. You’ll weigh more sides of an issue before making a decision. You’ll be more respectful of other people’s right to do the same. And, slowly but surely, you’ll cease blaming, feeling sorry for yourself, holding grudges, and acting helpless, because critical thinking will bring you round to realizing the futility in all of that.
The truth is, sometimes we’re part of the problem, and sometimes we’re part of the solution, and sometimes, despite our best efforts, we just don’t know until after the fact. As long as we inhabit a human body, we’re destined to shortcomings and errors of judgment. But if we strive to develop critical thinking, and we become increasingly self-aware, we move more and more toward the solution side of the equation.
That’s really the best any of us can do.
Categorised as: 12 Step Cliches