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Is It Better to Solve Problems, or Create Them?

August 22, 2012

I want to use this entry to explore a concept I have been wrestling with for some time. The dilemma is, I find myself spending a great deal, perhaps the majority of my time and energy trying to solve problems or prevent them from happening. Much of the thrust of my life is focused on the practical… taking care of the kids, the house, bills, etc. and providing security for the future. If you are like me, much of your life is a checklist. I told my counselor one time that I felt like I was shooting skeet all day, and they just kept flying in front of me.

But then, I think about things like the Pyramids in Egpyt, or the Taj Mahal, or the statues on Easter Island. I got an email the other day from some friends who are missionaries in China, and they took this picture in a remote mountainous area of the country. These Buddhist mantras are laboriously chiseled into stones or hillsides and sometimes vividly painted. For scale, one of the missionaries is standing on a rock in the middle.

In light of my own incessant burden of problem-solving, these feats of artistry and creativity are perplexing to me. First of all, in times and cultures where basic needs were far more difficult to satisfy than ours, how did these people find the time and energy to spend on essentially superfluous activity. You may argue that these people were trying to appease the gods, and therefore indirectly seeking practical benefits. Or, you may argue that some of these “artists” were actually slaves and their masters forced them to create. While there may be some truth in these arguments, I believe there is a deeper lesson for us here.

I saw a documentary recently on the life of Vincent Van Gogh, and was amazed at the number paintings he was able to produce in his lifetime. I was amazed, not because of how hard he worked for his success, but because of how hard he worked without success. This was a man who was never praised or even recognized as a successful artist during his lifetime. He could hardly give his paintings away. He was exceedingly poor, and a constant burden on his family and friends. But yet he was a genius, and internally driven to paint despite the lack of external affirmation or “problem solving value” of his endeavor.

I believe that we were created for more than solving problems. I believe that there is more to existing than padding our 401ks to the point that we have no more to-do’s or problems to solve, or even “being happy”. And I believe that when I get stuck in this problem-solution mode, there is a cosmic gap between what I am doing, and what I am capable of doing.

I was struck by this quote in a book I was reading recently:

“I am informed by philologists that the “rise to power” of these two words, “problem” and “solution” as the dominating terms of public debate, is an affair of the last two centuries, and especially of the nineteenth, having synchronized, so they say, with a parallel “rise to power” of the word “happiness” – for reasons which doubtless exist and would be interesting to discover. Like “happiness,” our two terms “problem” and “solution” are not to be found in the Bible – a point which gives to that wonderful literature a singular charm and cogency… On the whole, the influence of these words is malign, and becomes increasingly so. They have deluded poor men with Messianic expectations… which are fatal to steadfast persistence in good workmanship and to well-doing in general… Let the valiant citizen never be ashamed to confess that he has no “solution of the social problem” to offer to his fellow-men. Let him offer them rather the service of his skill, his vigilance, his fortitude and his probity. For the matter in question is not, primarily, a “problem,” nor the answer to it a “solution.”   – L.P. Jacks: Stevenson Lectures, 1926-7

There are times when I’m able to transcend this mode of problem-solving, and exist on a higher plane – while writing, or playing and creating music, on our mission trip to Mexico, or in times of fellowship with friends or family, even camping, or spending time in the outdoors. I believe that there are times when we are doing things which are consistent with who we are made to be, either individually, or collectively as human beings. Whether it is helping other people, connecting honestly with other people, or diligently using our skills or minds or bodies, there is a deep sense of peace and purpose when we are doing what we were made and designed to do.

In Dorothy Sayers book, The Mind of the Maker, (which has been one of the most impactful books I have read in a long time), she asserts that, because we are made in the image of God, and He is inherently creative, a primary facet of what we are made to do is create. Just like God’s grace and and love, creating sometimes seems superfluous, illogical, and without reason. God had no logical reason to create us, and it certainly didn’t solve any problems for Him.

Sayers reasons, “The concept of ‘problem and solution’ is as meaningless, applied to the act of creation, as it is when applied to the act of procreation. To add John to Mary in a procreative process does not produce a ‘solution’ of John’s and Mary’s combined problem; it produces George or Susan, who (in addition to being a complicating factor in the life of his or her parents) possesses an independent personality with an entirely new sweet of problems.”

This is not to say that creating is only defined as art, or music, or child-bearing. Anything that begins with a larger idea, or purpose, which a human manifests or works out materially in accordance with the idea or purpose can fit in this category.

When connected with who God created us to be, which frequently means getting in touch with purpose, or our creative endeavor on this earth, motivation is a non-issue. This puts us in touch with a power that is so much larger than money or security, or any of our problems. I believe this is why Van Gogh painted and painted and painted and painted without any external rewards on this earth. And this is why cultures before us have sacrificed life itself for the sake of their creative endeavors.

Sydney was creative by nature. She was constantly connecting with this life force inside of her. I don’t think it was a conscious choice, but she was driven to put together clothes and outfits, and design things, and create relationships, etc. etc. In accordance with the procreation example above, and to my constant frustration, her creative nature frequently left behind a trail of “problems”. However, after years of cleaning many of them up, and dedicating my life to order and efficiency, all the mess and “problems” are “solved” and far behind in the rearview mirror.

It’s funny that I’m second guessing it all now and wondering more than ever, “Is it better to solve problems, or create them?”

From → Stories

  1. Joy permalink

    Todd – this is so good. Keep writing!! Love this line especially: “God had no logical reason to create us, and it certainly didn’t solve any problems for Him.”

  2. Todd, Your post, along with thoughts of what you have been through, brought to mind some words from AW Tozer; he said, “A right belief about God relieves a man of 10,000 temporal issues. . . . Only after an ordeal of painful self-probing are we likely to discover what we actually believe about God. . . . The man who comes to a right belief about God is relieved of ten thousand temporal problems, for he sees at once that these have to do with matters which at the most cannot concern him for very long; but even if the multiple burdens of time may be lifted from him, the one mighty single burden of eternity begins to press down upon him with a weight more crushing than all the woes of the world piled one upon another. That mighty burden is his obligation to God. It includes an instant and lifelong duty to love God with every power of mind and soul, to obey Him perfectly, and to worship Him acceptably. And when the man’s laboring conscience tells him that he has done none of these things, but has from childhood been guilty of foul revolt against the Majesty in the heavens, the inner pressure of self-accusation may become too heavy to bear. [paragraph] The gospel can lift this destroying burden from the mind, give beauty for ashes, and the garment of praise for the spirit of heaviness. But unless the weight is felt the gospel can mean nothing to the man” (Tozer, Knowledge of the Holy, 2-3). I have learned through the tragedy in my own life that meaning can only be found in Him, and it is grace that we eventually get to see His tenderness in using such things in so many different positive ways, not the least of which is to draw us closer to Him that we might actually approach a “right belief” this side of glory. And when we hold Him in His rightful, highest place in our lives, it is only then that, in the words of the old hymn, “The things of earth grow strangely dim” and as you put it, “we get connected with who God created us to be . . . [so] motivation is a non-issue.” You bless me with your writing and your faith. Keep chasing after Him my brother. Jeff Risk

  3. Patrick Tillman permalink

    Hi Todd,
    Although we have never met I feel like with this portal you have so graciously and courageously opened up, I am connected with you. My sister, Mary Elizabeth sent me this most recent blog entry today.
    It was so moving, I have now spent the better part of the morning reading all of your writings. Each one spoke to me in different ways and I have tear-stained hands as proof.
    I’m quite sure I’m not alone in saying that you have enriched my life today, gently nudging me to look at my purpose/our purpose through a different prism. Let’s adventure into some meaningful problems and not worry about “solving” them.

  4. sharon cooke permalink

    Todd, the classroom is an everflowing fount of creation. Everytthing else falls away. Teaching always one to serve and create and know joy everyday.

  5. Thought provoking, Todd, thank you. We perhaps overuse the term “better” in our mind’s economy. I’m not sure the Lord sees one manner as better…both the wild, beautiful storm and the calm that soothes behind it are good. Both necessary for nurturing the earth and her creatures. Please keep sharing the depth of what you’re learning !

  6. Mark Upton permalink

    Great stuff! Both God (and Sydney) seem(ed) to think that creating problems was a lot more fun.

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