A few years ago I read a fascinating book, Management of the Absurd . Richard Farson oulined the difference between problems and predicaments. Problems are issues that can be solved. Predicaments on the other hand are situations where the tension or pain is inherently built into the system. For example, if a baseball sails through my living room window, that’s a problem. I can fix that with relative ease.
On the other hand, if I wake up one morning and discover that I mistakenly leased my sideyard to a company that runs batting cages, that’s a predicament. There’s nothing I’d be able to do about the constant sound of the aluminum bats impacting leather the foot traffic, and the occasion ball that somehow escaped its cage and sailed through my living room window. The business in my side yard has become a predicament. It’s not going away, the best I can do is to figure out how to deal with it well.
I suppose the trick is having the wisdom to know the difference between the two. That’s the whole point of the first stanza of Richard Neibuhr’s Serenity Prayer, right?
Years ago, I read The Rare Jewel of Christian Contentment. It’s an old Puritan classic, written by Jeremiah Burroughs. Jeremiah had the credentials to write a book like this. Burroughs was forced to flee England after he was falsely accused of using the pulpit for treasonous aims.
Burroughs wrote that if you have the ability to change a negative circumstance (What Farson calls a problem), by all means change it. But Burroughs also wrote that if a sailing vessel finds itself in a powerful storm the only reasonable course of action is to lower the sails and weather the blast. Good sailors know that if you try to muscle through a storm you’ll only take on water and allow for catastrophic damage to the sails, masts, and rigging.
Problems require us to respond with decisive and swift action.
Predicaments require other skills: Patience, self-care, endurance, community, hope, and prayer.
The key is not to respond to problems with the skill set needed for predicaments, or to attempting to resolve an unsolvable predicament with the blunt tools needed to solve a problem.
And as Niehbur prayed, “and the wisdom to know the difference.”