Digression: difficulties versus problems?


When you encounter issues that trouble you, are they difficulties or are they problems? Is global warming a difficulty, or is it a problem?

In this post, I want to clarify the distinction between difficulties and problems — I think it is an important distinction in the issues of cultural maturity. I explain it clearly in my book Acedia, and I am simply going to quote it here:

In Change: Principles of Problem Formation and Problem Resolution, Watzlawick et al (1974) note difficulties simply as an undesirable state of affairs, and problems as issues created and maintained [my emphasis] by the mishandling of difficulties. Difficulties can either be 1) resolved through some common-sense action, or 2) they are “undesirable but usually quite common life situations for which there exists no known solution and which—at least for the time being—must simply be lived with” (pp. 38-39). As example, “death” is a difficulty; there is no solution, only resolution. I also propose that acedia is a difficulty—whereas one can repeatedly choose the path of health, this choice is always between health and acedia (otherwise there would never be internal conflict).

Watzlawick et al (1974, p. 39) also note that there are basically three ways in which problems arise: 1) denial of the difficulty; 2) change is attempted when, for all practical purposes, the difficulty is unchangeable; and 3) action occurs in a way that sustains the difficulty. I propose that climate change is both a difficulty and a problem. We have not yet reached a resolution, yet alone a solution, and there is great denial, as well as a predominant focus simply on economics and technological change as a solution to climate issues. Technological resolutions may resolve the immediate situation, but I cannot foresee how it will lead to significant change in the underlying issue of acedia, or the fundamental deficits of our society that have promoted climate change.

To solve something means that the difficulty it represents goes away — you are complete with it. To resolve something means you are at peace with it — it may still be a difficulty, but you are satisfied that you know what to do about it.

An example. At one point in my careers, I was a specialist anaesthetist, a physician skilled in both caring for patients in the operating room, and also in the intensive care unit. One of the difficulties of intensive care, especially with more prolonged disorders of health, is that death is a frequent outcome, despite good care. Death is a natural outcome of life (a difficulty), sometimes sad but always inevitable for every person — it is just not clear when. What used to amaze me was the number of physicians who were angry that patients died; these physicians somehow were attempting to solve death (death was a problem), rather than be at peace that, despite their best efforts, patients died.

I also knew that there was a huge financial investment in stopping death — I vaguely recall (~1985) that almost 50% of medical costs (American, but also likely Canadian) occurred within the last three months of life, i.e., preventing death. Much of this cost may have been appropriate; some was not. I knew the factors involved in the choices to continue care in these difficult situations. Broad brushstrokes — patients with failure of more than two organ systems did not survive; patients with life-threatening blunt trauma (car accidents, for example) did not survive.

So my standard, part of my personal living will, is that if I am unconscious and have more than two systems in failure (e.g., stroke and kidney failure, on a respirator), I do not wish ongoing treatment. Let death be the natural outcome; I do not wish to be a problem.


Solvable (right/wrong) problems and resolvable (polarity) problems.

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