You know that textbook picture of gears — wheels, spokes and plates that seem to be arranged in a perfect design that allows the wheels and spokes to turn? Some parts move, while others stay firmly in place, refusing to budge, even as the moving bits pull and push past them. It struck me that life’s a bit like that — it has things that remain constant and others that shift and change, elements that one simply has to accept, and others that can be altered.

Some months ago, I had written about how it is important to understand the difference between a situation and a problem. A situation is something like those immovable, fixed parts of a machine, while a problem has both fixed and moveable parts, and the search for a solution is largely about identifying the latter and getting them to align with each other. Maybe not the best analogy,but it struck me that it could give us a way of getting through rough patches…or even just working our way through an everyday problem.

Break down components

It is useful to look at our lives at any given moment, in terms of these fixed and flexible components. There are some things that do not change, some that change with time (continuous but evolving factors), and some that can be controlled by us. If we are happy with the way things are and feel no anxiety, then, we may not need to fiddle with anything; changes will continue to balance with the needs naturally, as we go along. But if we are caught in a difficult situation, it helps to take it apart and see what these elements are, and which ones we can actually work on, rather than trying to push against the immovable ones which will refuse to budge and sap our energy, in the process.

Let’s take one kind of problem: a difficult college course that we seem to be stuck with. A refrain that we might often encounter is, “too bad, you are stuck with it, now deal with it”. But what exactly are you stuck with? How do you deal with it? You can pick apart the situation at various levels of detail. Let us assume, for now, that you do not want to walk away from the course, as it might involve giving up on the programme entirely, and an accompanying financial loss (apart from the disapproval of parents or others). So, the “immovable” factors might be —the course syllabus, instructor, schedule and location, and your presence and other academic requirements

There is no point wasting time complaining about these. The factors that are within your control include the effort you put in (inside and outside class), the help you seek, the resources (time, materials) you draw upon. These are the gears you need to move to make the output — satisfactory performance — happen.

In other situations, too, you can try to analyse the three kinds of elements so that you see where you can actually focus your energies, rather than worrying about those that you cannot change, or that arise from the larger circumstances. It is something like the serenity prayer, asking for wisdom to see the difference between the things you can change and those you cannot.

The author teaches at the University of Hyderabad and edits Teacher Plus. [email protected]

In other situations, too, you can try to analyse the three kinds of elements so that you see where you can actually focus your energies, rather than worrying about those that you cannot change

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