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Even When It’s Social, It’s Personal (And Vice Versa)

Every problem has a social dimension and a personal dimension.

The social dimension of a problem involves those elements that can be understood and resolved in terms of universal principles, general advice, and common sense wisdom.

As a married man, for instance, I benefit greatly from the insights and experiences of other married couples on topics like communication, male/female differences, understanding love languages, etc. This is possible because there are fundamental issues and themes that all marriages have in common. Every marriage requires some form of communication between the parties involved. Every marriage requires some degree of compromise when the desires of each party are mutually exclusive. Every marriage requires  some ability to tolerate differences in personality and lifestyle. When I experience difficulty in these areas, I can learn valuable lessons by paying attention to how others have navigated the challenges and complexities posed by those same issues. The details of everyone’s problems may vary, but there are still useful thoughts and tools, however rudimentary, that can be gleaned from others.

Real-life problems, however, cannot be reduced to their social dimension. Every problem also has elements that uniquely belong to the experiencer of the problem. These elements comprise a problem’s personal dimension.

To revisit my marriage example, there’s a considerable amount of value I can gain from listening to the wisdom and experience of other married couples. There are things about relationships in general, women in general, and communication in general that it really helps me to know. This knowledge, however, has its limits. There comes a point where I have to go beyond understanding relationships, women, and communication IN GENERAL and I must face the challenge of learning how to harmoniously coexists with the particular woman that is my wife. My wife has qualities that are unique to her personality. While she shares many things in common with other women, she also has attributes that make her unlike any other woman that’s ever existed (or been written about in books on relationships). Moreover, the uniqueness of my wife’s personality takes on an added element of particularity when I consider the manner in which my unique personality invokes certain kinds of reactions and responses from her. So when I face creative challenges in my married life, there are things I can learn from others, but there are also things I can only learn by engaging my wife, sorting through the unique complexity of my own situation, forming my own theories, revising my own theories, abandoning my own theories, and finding my way through trial and error.

I use marriage as an example, but the underlying message is true for every creative challenge regardless of context: No matter how unique your problem is, there is SOMETHING you can learn from those who’ve gone through similar struggles. AND no matter how much you benefit from the wisdom of other people’s experiences, there is AT LEAST ONE THING you’ll have to figure out on your own.

All problems are universal AND unique. There is a sense in which everyone goes through what you’re going through. And there is a sense in which you are the only person in history who will ever go through what you’re going through.

We are never alone. Yet we are never without the need for self-reliance.

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