I’m the Problem: An Introduction

I’m the Problem: An occasional series in which I detail how I, in fact, am the problem

Last week I went grocery shopping with my six-month-old, Owen. I’m a big fan of life lessons, so I took a moment while putting back the cart to teach Owen about the importance of cart-putting-back. “Civilization is sustained by small acts of civility,” I lectured. “Putting back the cart is an easy act of kindness. Besides, it’s like, when did you get so busy?”

Good citizenry at its finest

In the past, I used to judge drivers whose brake lights would flicker sporadically when coming to a stop. “Old people!” I’d yell, exasperated and always out loud to no one, somehow taking it as a personal offense.

Suddenly I realized: all those people might have had crying two-month-olds in the car.

As I returned to my car, I began to muse: Would I always return the cart, absolutely no matter what? What if I was really stressed out and late for something (a situation I find myself in often) — would I give myself a pass? What if Owen was sobbing, or had just spit up on me? Then was I allowed to leave my cart in the parking spot?

For a long time now, I’ve wanted to start a blog called, “You’re the Problem,” in which I would detail ways in which people complain about other people being the problem, but in reality, they are the problem (case study: 100% of people can’t be right that the office kitchen is dirty because everyone else is lazy and terrible). The main reason I haven’t started this blog is because it is a terrible idea. But also because I couldn’t escape the inherent paradox at the concept’s core: in writing the blog, I would be blaming the problem on others. What if, gasp, I was the problem?

It’s not all that surprising that it’s hard to see ourselves as partially causing the problems that ail society. After all, no one understands better what motivates our actions, or has more compassion for our logic, than we do for ourselves. It’s the classic actor-observer effect.

But on a large scale, not at least asking if I’m the problem can have detrimental effects. It perpetuates issues like brain drain and white flight. (“I’m not moving because I’m racist; I’m moving because education is important to me and I want my kids in the best schools.” But when everyone who can say that does, you get white flight. See what I mean?) It keeps fast fashion in business and gives people an excuse to water their lawns during droughts.

American Trappist monk Thomas Merton had this down. A pacifist, Merton wrote in The Seven Storey Mountain that when faced with the horrors of World War Two, he was compelled to confess his own attitudes that contributed to a world at war. Later, in The New Seeds of Contemplation, he wrote:

“Instead of hating the people you think are war-makers, hate the appetites and disorder in your own soul, which are the causes of war. If you love peace, then hate injustice, hate tyranny, hate greed — but hate these things in yourself, not in another.”

This attitude isn’t meant to make people despair of themselves, to encourage victims to stay in unsafe situations, or to discount the reality of systemic failures. But if we are willing ask the hard question, What if I’m the problem?” two things happen. First, it makes us less judgmental, and more understanding of other people’s motivations (see: previous braking revelation). And one person experiencing more understanding toward another is always welcome. Second, it becomes the basis for doggedly and energetically acting out solutions for the world’s problems. The plastic island in the middle of the ocean is never going to stop growing until I recognize the plastic bag floating towards it is mine.

This small act might now be all it takes to change things, but I do believe it’s the place where change starts. So the next time you’re angry at someone, even if it’s because of dirty office kitchens, stop to ask yourself, “Am I the problem?”