Late last week the ADSL account I was using was cancelled. Since then I have been using dial-up. And it is S-L-O-W, I mean mind-numblingly, boringly, tediously SSSSLLLLOOOOWWWW.
This turn of events did not make me happy (you picked that up, no?). After a couple of days the penny dropped and I realised how frustrated I was.
At which point I started thinking about it. I realised that I still had an internet connection – I could still post to my blog, I wouldn’t just be taken down without people knowing what happened (this was done to me recently by the people who host my blog – what a 24 hours that was!). In short things weren’t great, but they could certainly be worse.
And there was other stuff that I could be doing. My whole life isn’t tied to online – even writing that I publish online can be written off line.
So I thought this was a good opportunity to write about what to do with frustration.
Fritz Perls: Frustration is the difference between here and there.
In other words our frustration is about desire. If we are content with what we have and where we are then we aren’t frustrated.
This insight leads to the advice: let go. With no expectations or desires we won’t be frustrated.
This is undoubtedly the case, but I’m not sure it’s desirable. Is it really desirable to shrug our shoulders at the appalling suffering in some parts of the world? To simply instruct those starving to death that they shouldn’t desire food? This advice can quickly become an excuse for callous indifference. (I don’t mean that this is the intention of those offering it.)
Compassion means some kind of desire to alleviate suffering. To remedy the distance between here and there. (This is quite different to the desire to my every whim met (and RIGHT NOW, dammit!) but desire and frustration still seem to me to be part of the story.
There is also the opposite approach to frustration. This approach thinks that, frustration is what life is about. You should desire things as intensely as possible – and direct all your attention to getting what you want. In this way of thinking people are little more than collections of desires dedicated to satisfying their longings. This way of doing things, in one sense, wants us as frustrated as it is possible to be.
This can be awfully crass – usually the desire seems to be as much money as possible. However there is no reason why it shouldn’t apply to other desires – even self-realisation or enlightenment.
The big problem I have with this way of thinking is that the intensity of desire is sometimes thought to do something on its own. It seems to me that usually our desire needs to lead to action, if we are to become satisfied.
Another problem is that it can be awfully self-interested, there is usually no room for intimacy.
There is another approach to frustration. To see that it is a kind of information. If we are frustrated, then we want something. It may well be worth knowing what that is.
A simple example is when we have something like a maths problem to solve. We know what we want (the answer) and know – if it has been done properly – that we should have enough information to figure it out. (Usually this is some kind of guessing game – what information has been left out. I have my doubts about this kind of guessing game, but that’s the subject of another post.) Usually the trick is to find out what type of problem it is and apply the standard procedures for this kind of problem. This means looking at the information given, trying out different things, finding the one that fits, applying the procedure, and obtaining the result. We are satisfied.
We categorise the situation (as the kind of problem it is) and then apply the standard procedure. This can be applied to relationship difficulties, building a popular blog, building a house . . . the possibilities are almost infinite.
In the world of human relationships this can be a good deal more complicated. We may realise that what we want is physical touch. We can get this through a massage, shaking hands, exchanging hugs and so on. We can try out all of these and find which is most satisfying.
We then have more information about what we want. A handshake may be all we want, or we may find that we long to be closer to people. In which case this might mean developing conversational and listening skills.
This approach of classifying the desire and finding a standard way of meeting it (eg. if we’re hungry making lunch) can work very well for most things.
The problem is when we want something new. We sense that we want something more or different to what we have. We can even have the sense that we will know it when we find out but can’t say what it is yet.
In this situation there are at least a couple of things we can do.
One is to try out different things, and then reflect on whether there were some that were more satisfying than others. If so, then we may at least have a sense of where to do more things.
We can also try out imagining what it is that would be ideal. We can imagine a perfect day (or week or year). One where we don’t have this frustration. We can then compare how this is different to our current situation. This may give us a clue to what the frustration is.
In summary my way of dealing with frustration is:
Let the frustration tell you what the need is.
Follow a standard approach for meeting this need.
If this isn’t possible: try out lots of different things and reflect on which of them is more satisfying.
Or, try imagining a life without the frustration.
And yet, there are some frustrations that seem constant. If we wish to end hunger in the world we are going to be frustrated (at least for the forseeable future, so far as I can tell) and this means to some extent embracing some suffering. I think that all we can do is be clear about this choice.
For me the resolution is to do what I can and find a way to rest content with this. Others, who are willing to embrace more suffering than me, may well see this as callousness on my part.
In this situation there is little we can do except find ways to be kind to ourselves while doing what we can (punishing ourselves when we have done what we can seems counter-productive to me).
One qualification. Some things that seem hopeless may not be. Ending world hunger is one thing, me finding a job I like is something else. They may both feel equally difficult to me (finding the job may even feel more difficult). But they probably aren’t (most of the time, for most of us, anyway). So the important qualification I think is: we don’t know for sure. So, we can adopt an exploratory, experimental attitude.
How big a part of your life is frustration? What ways do you have of responding to it. Let me know in the comments.