No One Ever Gets the Problems He Can Handle


Another bit of wisdom today from Edwin Friedman’s A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix:

Where parents are willing to take responsibility for their own unworked-out relationships either with their own parents or with one another, children rarely develop serious symptoms. Symptoms in a child are most likely to develop in the areas of the parent’s own traumatization where they, therefore, have the least emotional flexibility. (Parents never seem to get the problems they can handle.) And to the extent child-focus enables parents not to have to deal with their own relationships or their own unresolved issues, that projection process will retard if not nullify all techniques and well-meaning efforts to improve the child, including the aid they seek from tutors and counselors.

To expect parents to focus on the emotional processes in their own relationships rather than focus on their children requires having counselors (therapists, educators, clergy, and so on) who are willing to do likewise. And it is much easier for everyone to conspire to focus on data and technique instead. The social science construction of reality that would diagnose children instead of family emotional process, and that would allow parents to blame their ethnic background rather than take responsibility for their own responses, furthers the anxiety.

One of Friedman’s themes is summarized as “no one ever gets the problems he can handle.” In this quote, he’s applying it to parenting, but of course it applies to every relationship.

We often labor under bad relationships for years, and we may think that there’s nothing we can do about them. And of course it’s very easy to blame other people for them, even for our own lack of spiritual growth. For example, I read online this comment yesterday on social media:

My wife totally impeded spiritual growth merely by her existence. I’m sure my divorce was an act of God.

People can indeed be terrible to one another. But no one can make someone feel a certain way. I wrote at some length about this here: “You MAKE Me So Angry: How Do I Acquire the Spirit of Peace?”

And certainly no one can prevent another person’s spiritual growth, even within marriage or family life.

Within the context of Friedman’s observation, that no one gets the problems he can handle, we can understand spiritual growth this way: The problems we experience, including other people’s bad behavior, are only problems for us because of our own spiritual and emotional immaturity. Experiencing another person’s dysfunction as emotional and spiritual distress is only possible because of the way that we process his dysfunction.

None of that excuses another person’s behavior—everyone is responsible for himself. But like Jesus Christ and like the martyrs, even if someone is actively seeking to torture and kill us, our experience of that does not have to be destructive. The Lord and His martyrs show that peace and even joy are possible within such contexts.

Yes, it’s completely understandable if I feel terrible when someone does terrible things to me. That’s normal and even to be expected. However, if I place all the blame for my feelings on another person, then I am short-circuiting my ability to grow spiritually. This is why so many of the Fathers actually say that abuse from enemies is a gift—not because we are spiritual masochists, but because we are being presented with an opportunity to learn humility and peace even in the face of something terrible. In short, it’s understandable if I feel terrible at bad behavior, but it doesn’t have to be that way. I’m free.

Again, if I take responsibility for my own feelings (my own emotional responses), that does not excuse someone else’s bad behavior. He needs to take responsibility himself and will answer to God for what he does.

But it does give me an opportunity to do something good with my experience of his bad behavior. I can grow. I can recognize that that person is just expressing his own brokenness. I can even become an instrument of peace in the midst of his chaos. If I’m not yet strong enough for that, at the very least, I can take greater control of myself and not be controlled by someone else’s behavior.

It’s easy to blame other people for our own lack of growth, especially when they are doing something that is objectively bad. But as Christians, we are squandering the opportunity for spiritual growth if we don’t accept responsibility for our own responses.

NB: I am not talking about enabling or allowing physically violent people to get away with their violence. I am talking about what we choose to do spiritually in the face of other people’s dysfunction. More in the comments.


  1. I worked with male domestic violence offenders for six years. Sometimes the healthiest response to another person’s behavior is to get away from them. In the case of abusers, this can be a matter of life and death. And yes, we had groups for female domestic violence offenders, too.

    When there’s physical violence involved — and especially when there are children — seeking peace and joy in one’s experience of a partner’s abuse is neither healthy nor responsible. I would hope you’re not condoning that, or that you would counsel a wife who’s being beaten by her husband to stick with it so she can grow spiritually.

    1. Thanks for this comment, because it highlights what I am not talking about.

      What I am talking about is our spiritual growth. I am not saying that battered people should just stand there and let someone beat them up and kill them. Yes, if there is physical violence, then the smartest thing to do in most circumstances is to get away if possible, for two reasons: 1) someone could get killed and 2) the temptation to despair is probably too much to face and therefore would not allow for much in the way of spiritual growth.

      That said, one can indeed have peace and joy in any context. If that’s not true, then that means that God really didn’t defeat death.

  2. Rilke in the 10th Duino Elegy >> how we squander our hours of pain.

    Someday, emerging at last from the violent insight,
    let me sing out jubilation and praise to assenting angels.
    Let not even one of the clearly-struck hammers of my heart
    fail to sound because of a slack, a doubtful,
    or a broken string. Let my joyfully streaming face
    make me more radiant; let my hidden weeping arise
    and blossom. How dear you will be to me then, you nights
    of anguish. Why didn’t I kneel more deeply to accept you,
    inconsolable sisters, and, surrendering, lose myself
    in your loosened hair. How we squander our hours of pain.
    How we gaze beyond them into the bitter duration
    to see if they have an end. Though they are really
    our winter-enduring foliage, our dark evergreen,
    one season in our inner year–, not only a season
    in time–, but are place and settlement, foundation and soil and home.

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