Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Solving Solving Problem Solving

I recently learned that a friend has put her life on hold to come home and take care of her mom, who was in a horrendous traffic accident and suffered massive brain damage. Of course, I immediately called my friend Tony.

Tony was my auto mechanic during the 1980's. He wouldn't strike you as the brainy type, and, indeed, his reading and writing skills are poor. But I saw that Tony was brilliant. He fixed cars via highly creative methods, often involving a sledge hammer (don't ask). And he was an honest mechanic, that rarest of rarities. His career choice was either priest or mechanic, and he went with the option requiring less academic prowess. Yet there was always a hovering air of benediction inside Tony's messy back-alley Queens garage.

A few years ago, I got a phone call from Tony, who was in a state of distress. His brother had been working on a scaffold, and had fallen thirty feet to the sidewalk, directly on his head. He was in a coma, on total life support, and the family had been told to expect no improvement. Tony had flown to San Francisco to attend to the situation.

I wrote down the medical information so I could do some research, and found only dead ends. I delicately suggested to Tony that things looked irresolvable.

A few weeks later, on the eve of a trip to California, I gave Tony a call to see whether he was still out there. He told me he'd been camped out in his brothers hospital room, and that I wouldn't believe what's happening. I flew west, grabbed a cab to the hospital, and walked into a room filled with....stuff. Strings, poles, clips, bags, pouches, blocks, and much more. Tony's brother looked awful - his skull was collapsed, making his head look like a deflated football. He was completely out of it. But Tony was exuberant.

"Watch!" he said, while he clipped a clothespin to his brother's toe. The comatose patient immediately began shaking his feet and flexing his toe in order to remove the pin. Tony methodically moved the clothespin from toe to toe, from foot to foot. And he'd asked the orderlies not to shave his brother's face. As a result, his hands were creeping closer and closer toward his head in order to scratch the itchy stubble.

Tony was spending 24/7 thinking up creative, great solutions like this. There were literally thousands of them, an outpouring of pure genius. And let's cut to the end (the entire tale needs to be a book or NY Times Magazine article, if I can summon the ambition). Today, Tony's brother is out of the hospital. He's walking, talking, feeding himself, and otherwise functioning normally. Sure, he sleeps 16 hours per night and is quite spacy, but the neurologists have been left completely dumbfounded. This was not a possible result.

Tony has since worked with other hopeless cases, with great success. (Unfortunately, Tony has no certification. No title. No degree. No education. Where could he work? Who would hire him? We pay neurologists huge salaries to cluck their tongues in such cases and insist nothing can be done. But Tony, who can actually fix people, can't make a dime!)

I told my friend this entire story. And informed her that Tony had offered to advise her via phone, and to stop by to see her Mom, and work with her (pro bono) if she'd like. If things in this world were priced in accordance with their true value, this was a ten million dollar offer. My friend expressed grateful appreciation, but, weeks later, she still hasn't called him. I guess she won't. And her mom will not be getting better.

As I lamented
here, solving difficult problems is hard, but it's nowhere near as hard as persuading someone to embrace a worthy solution. Spinning my wheels on this ever-recurring quandary (here's another example), I've learned some things. I've learned to detach and not insist. I've learned to shrug and accept that gently offering is all that one can do. I've learned to calmly observe people opting for problems, pain, and suffering in the face of obvious solutions. This has all been intensely challenging for me. But the problem is that within my newfound detachment, I find it really hard to empathize. I go cold. Not sulky or exasperated, and not waiting for a "told you so" moment; just annoyingly cheerfully aloof. How does one remain emotionally engaged while blithely shrugging off?

The next time I hear from my friend with the brain-damaged mom, I'll need to summon genuine sympathy for her sad dead-end tale. And I need to reconnect with the guy with the mysterious (self-inflicted) muscle tears, who I've been avoiding. It seems crazy to find oneself holding a bag of hard-won solutions while watching folks who've declined those solutions suffer. But it's necessary to overlook the craziness - as we humans must overlook so much craziness - and remain fully sympathetic. Because suffering is suffering, self-inflicted or not, and a flair for problem solving is but one faculty (and a minor one at that) to wield in a world where people fall in love with their problems and actively stave off solution.

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