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How to Fix Other People’s Problems

First published in Huffpost Religion, February 25, 2016

Mette Ivie Harrison Ph.D. (Princeton) Mormon in progress, mother of 5, author of ‘The Bishop’s Wife’ and “His Right Hand,” All-American triathlete

Talking to a family member who is currently serving in a role of pastoral care, I was surprised to hear him talk openly about the many, many members of his ward who came to him with massive problems: divorce, infidelity, financial ruin, children with disabilities, deaths, and every tragedy you can probably imagine.

“How do you fix problems like that?” I said, since I’ve never been in a position like this, except perhaps occasionally as a parent.

He said something like this: “I don’t. That’s the first thing I learned in this job. The impulse to fix is almost irresistible, but it’s not my role to solve other people’s problems. It’s my job to listen to them, to comfort them, to condole with them, to pray for them, but never fix things that are their lives. It would be disrespectful for me to try to do more than that. If they can’t fix it themselves, how could I, who knows so much less about their lives, fix it for them? And if God hasn’t fixed it, then perhaps it’s not supposed to be fixed.”

I have thought a lot about this conversation in the last few months, about the impulse to fix things for other people and how much a part of religion that can often be. I think that part of my anger at God in many years of depression was because I wanted my life to be fixed. I wanted bad things not to happen to me. I had imagined that life was about choosing the right path so that I avoided sin and all the consequences of sin. I did not want to accept that life might be about dealing with tragedies that had no cause and had no easy solution.

I had spent my whole life up to that point being very good at seeing problems and fixing them. It truly stopped me in my tracks to try to see the world in a different way, not as a series of problems to be fixed, but rather a series of experiences to sit with and ponder.

When someone comes to me with a problem, they are often frustrated with me if I tell them it’s not my place to fix their problems for me. But on the other hand, they are just as frustrated if I offer them a list of simple solutions that from my perspective seem like the right answers. The truth is that someone else’s life is not my life. It’s not my purpose to fix their problems, just as it is not my purpose to judge them for not solving their problems the way that I think that they should.

Yes, people have problems. Yes, we are called as Christians to help others. But to me, this often means helping them to see their own problems and their own capacities to fix them in a loving and non-judgmental way–because this is the state we are all in. We all have beams in our own eyes and tend to see motes in other people’s eyes. Perhaps the best we can do is remind each other about our own flaws and inability to see clearly.

My father, who served for a number of years as a Mormon bishop, told me that one of the things he had learned was about money problems. He said this after I had narrowly escaped declaring bankruptcy and losing my home.

It was his experience that once people realized that they had a problem with money, it was almost immaterial how deep they were in debt. If they stopped saying that they were making all the right choices already, that there was nothing else to be done but what they were doing, then making changes was easy.

And once they had a budget in place that meant they had stopped spending more money than they took in, financial solvency happened quickly afterward. Because people started solving their own problems once they saw them clearly and realized they had the power to do something about these problems.

I don’t think that it’s helpful to point out other people’s problems to them from an imagined place of superiority. The truth is, I’m not sure that I often see what other people’s problems are anyway. But sometimes having a loving conversation, mirroring their own words back to them, asking questions, and sharing some of my own experiences that might or might not relate, without any pressure on them to do anything, can lead to people seeing for themselves how they want to change their lives. And that is what I think is really helping other people.

This is why I don’t often give advice to others. I am not sure how much my advice to someone else’s situation can help. I have never had an experience where I thought that someone was facing exactly the same situation that I had faced previously. Even if I had, I’m not sure that I would necessarily know if my choice had been the only right one. If I had chosen badly, I have no confidence that I could now choose the right choice for someone else in a different time. It’s not as if there are ever really only two choices.
Ultimately, I have stopped even wishing that I could solve problems for other people because I believe that if God hasn’t fixed the problems for them, there is a reason for that.

This doesn’t mean that I turn my back and shrug when people need help. I donate regularly to our local food kitchen and to global causes I believe in. I regularly carry cash to offer to the homeless, trying not to judge them if they ask for help. And I recently invited my sister and her son to come live with us for a couple of years while they worked out some financial and emotional problems.

I didn’t fix their lives, but I provided a safe space for them to investigate their own problems and begin solving them on their own. I hope that this is what I do in conversation with people all the time, offer safe space to see the world clearly and their place in it as a beloved child of God who is still struggling to figure out what is the best way to move forward.