A problem-free life

Grassy Ethereal Field by LincLine Photo on Etsy

I am not usually one for inspirational quotes, because for some reason – cynicism? pure stubborn defiance? – for me they typically have the opposite effect.

Those pithy wall art quotes that are supposed to inspire a sense of peace or wellbeing,  “Breathe” “Love” “Laugh”,  inspire something else in me. Something that feels a lot like rage, actually, because yes duh I am breathing, I’m here looking at this stupid sign, aren’t I? And I will love who and when I want to, dammit. And no, I don’t actually feel like laughing right now stop telling me what to do, walls!

But I also know that even though this particular brand of inspiration spurs irritation in me, it also serves as a touchpoint for others – reminding them to stop, inhale, show affection, express joy. It doesn’t work for me, but I totally get it. I get it now more than ever, because a few days ago I stumbled across a passage that literally stopped me in my tracks and if it were possible I would carve the whole thing out of wood and stick it above my mantle (even though I do not now own, nor have I ever owned, a mantle.)

The magic words came from the mouth of a lovely man named Eckhart Tolle (who just so happens to be BFF’s with Oprah- obviously, you know?)

This is what it said:

The problem is not that there are problems. The problem is expecting otherwise and thinking that having problems is a problem.” (Theodore Rubin)

Even if we discount all those pseudo-problems (such as worry), that are created by dysfunctional thinking, there still remains the fact that “having problems” seems to be the norm in most people’s lives. Relationships, finances, work, health….. if it’s not one thing, it’s something else. So, can we accept the possibility that comfort and security are not the ultimate purpose of human existence — and that consciousness evolves and awakens through facing discomfort and insecurity? Can we accept that we may be here to be challenged, and so no longer resent the fact that we have problems? Can we accept each moment as it is?

The paradox is that, when we live like that, with no resentment and no complaining, not only do solutions appear more quickly, but we transcend the entire realm of problems. All that’s left then is life and its challenges, and we respond to each challenge with peace in our hearts.


Until I read this, I don’t think I ever realized that I have been treating my life as a series of problems to be fixed and gotten out of the way so I can live my real life. You know, the life where I wake up early and have coffee without the accompanying coffee-anxiety, I have weekly meal plans and where Gus has stopped shedding and drooling, where Olive is potty trained and I am gloriously, hugely pregnant; where we own a lovely charming home and are completing lovely, effortless renovations; where Adam is magically clean and organized, and I am a famous writer who also has to do no publicity at all because everyone indulges me as a quirky eccentric hermit.

You know THAT life, yeah?

So my general attitude towards all of the things standing between me and this mythical life – the discipline and the practice, the physics and the training, cleaning and negotiating and stress – my attitude forwards all of these roadblocks has been that all of it can just fuck off please, so I can get back to catching up to my REAL life. Finally!

The problems irritated me and stressed me and made me incredibly anxious, because they were my way, dammit! There was always something in the way and it was never ending.

It is never ending.

I can visualize my real life perfectly, that’s how hard I have been clutching at it – perennially always just out of reach. I see all of the problems and bumps and roadblocks just dissolving into mist and my whole existence opening up into a wide open field of joy and possibility.

But after I read those words and re-read them and let them sink into my bones, after that I realized that the field doesn’t exist.

It does not exist.

That realization floored me. I truly didn’t understand that a problem-free life didn’t exist until I read that quote. And more importantly, I really didn’t understand how deeply I believed it did, until I felt the shock of that vision shattering.

It is a very strange feeling, realizing that there will never be a time in my life that there aren’t some problems, big or small. Dogs puking on new carpets, illnesses both life-threatening and not, jobs lost, bad haircuts, burnt toast.

Suddenly realizing this feels like taking off sunglasses in blinding light – it’s discomforting and alarming, I feel like I am reeling, stumbling around a bit trying to get my bearings.

I also feel incredibly foolish for having worn the glasses for so long, I mean shouldn’t I have figured this out sooner? Do you all know this already? Have I been alone fighting for this mythical life of smooth sailing and plans fulfilled to the letter?

More than that, it’s scary. If I’m not fighting against the very existence of these problems, I have to live with them. I have to accept them and expect them, I have to come up with some way to live gracefully among this minefield. Can I do that? Can I, as dear Mr. Tolle says, “…accept the possibility that comfort and security are not the ultimate purpose of human existence” ?

That’s a lot to let go of. Comfort and security are what I have been chasing for a decade. Sometimes it feels like the tighter I clutch that goal, the more it slips away. And this is more than new age mumbo jumbo – it gets to the core of how I interact with my life, every part of it.

I am notorious for getting a very specific idea in my head – whether it’s of a pair of shoes, or a complete life – and I get really attached to this idea and really invested in this idea and I ride so far with this idea that somewhere along the way I forget that I invented it and it might not – probably does not- exist. And eventually I come face to face with this reality and I have to settle for some real-life solution and I find myself disappointed.

I think this can be a good thing at times – it is what makes me a good writer, the ability to spin a whole narrative from a two minute interaction or a one-off comment, but it can be problematic in real life when you go to eighty-seven shoe stores looking for the Platonic ideal of ankle boots which you have materialized in your head and are now desperately trying to claw into existence through sheer will.


I am working through where to go from here, how to get my footing after this shift, and I have a hunch that it comes down to creating an expectation for how I want to feel, rather than how I want something to be.

Choose Joy by Made By Huntsie on Etsy

I think this is what people mean when they say simple things like “choose joy”. It used to be irritating, because how can I choose to be happy when all this shit keeps happening?!

I will be happy if. I will be happy when– and not a second sooner!  But if I am just choosing to be happy, period, if I choose that emotion and then filter life through that happiness, rather than attaching it to a series of conditions that must be met before it can be fulfilled – I mean really. That’s it. right?

Anyway, sorry to go all self-helpy on you. I just thought this was sort of an interesting thing to come across at the ripe old age of thirty, and I wondered if everyone else got here before me – and why didn’t you tell me?

And just so I don’t leave off with you thinking I am some sort of budding Oprah zen master, please remember that I still deal with conversations like this one I had with Adam while we were moving, on the daily:


Me: Okay, so I have devised a Pink Sticker System

Adam: What?

Me: A Pink Sticker System. I am putting pink stickers on the boxes that have stuff like toiletries, clothing, Olive’s toys etc. so that they don’t get put into storage.

Adam: That’s too complicated, it will never work.

Me: What? Why?

Adam: I don’t want to have to be searching around for weird pink stickers on every box. I’ll just remember what needs to go where.

Me: Okay, well you’re the one unpacking so whatever works for you.

***4 hours later**

Adam: Hey, what’s with these stickers?

Me: *Staring at him. Speaking very slowly* Those are from the Pink. Sticker. System.

Adam: The what?

Me: The…the Pink Sticker–okay seriously? The Pink Sticker System! I was putting pink stickers on things to identify boxes that shouldn’t be put into storage? Remember?

Adam: No. Why are there only three boxes with stickers?

Me: What?! Because I stopped after you said it wouldn’t work and you just wanted to-

Adam: -that would have made things so much easier!

Me: *feverishly mumbling* Consciousness evolves and awakens through facing discomfort and insecurity. Consciousnessevolvesandawakensthroughfacingdiscomfortandinsecurity.Consciousness evolves and awakens-


Can we call this two steps forward, one step back?

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  • Reply plf1990 April 6, 2014 at 12:28 AM

    Reblogged this on Understanding Me and Her and commented:
    This is amazing and a really different but important way of viewing life. Was quite choked by this quote.

  • Reply jamieramirez April 6, 2014 at 1:23 AM

    (bwah ha ha ha … effortless renovations! must be a canadian thing)

  • Reply oliviamangle April 6, 2014 at 1:28 AM

    I have choose joy tattooed on left wrist to remind me every day that if I’m constantly waiting for one thing to happen then I’ll be happy, it will never happen. Yes better to seize the joyfulness now and let life happen how it does. (If any of that makes any sense to anyone!)

  • Reply jamieramirez April 6, 2014 at 1:36 AM

    you have such major “aha!” moments like this, over and over and over again, for years on end, you start to wonder how you functioned (and were you just impossible to be around?) 5, 10, 15 years ago. you start to wonder which people haven’t had these same realizations, and which have had far more—and just how grown up are you by now, anyway? well, at least that’s the way it plays out for me. i’m convinced we have these kinds of realizations for the rest of our lives, and it’s so hard to imagine what all the ones will be that have yet to dawn on us. or how much more mature it is truly possible to become…!

  • Reply Elsewhere April 6, 2014 at 9:16 AM


    How about not creating an expectation for how you want to feel, but just notice how you feel, accept how you feel. “Not opposing life as it is” (Tara Brach, might be BFF with Oprah too 😉 )

    • Reply sweetmadeleine April 7, 2014 at 1:30 PM

      Yes, I think you’re right in that “expectation” is the wrong word because it leaves you open to disappointment if you don’t achieve it…saying ” a goal for how I want to feel”. So just focusing on the fact that I want to be content and in harmony with the people around me, rather than an exact picture of what will get me to that state….if that makes sense.

      P.S. Does anyone else wonder if Oprah has like, one fuckup friend who just can’t get it together? All her BFF’s are zen masters and gurus of finance, just ONCE I would like to meet Susan, Oprah’s BFF with bad credit and a big mac addiction she has no interest in overcoming. SHOW YOURSELF< SUSAN!

  • Reply Taylor April 6, 2014 at 9:42 AM

    “Oh God, are there so many of them in our land! Students who can’t be happy until they’ve graduated, servicemen who can’t be happy until they are discharged, single folks who can’t be happy until they’ve found a mate, workers who can’t be happy until they’ve retired, adolescents who aren’t happy until they’re grown, ill people who aren’t happy until they’re well, failures who aren’t happy until they succeed, restless who can’t wait until they get out of town, and in most cases, vice versa, people waiting, waiting for the world to begin.”
    -Tom Robbins
    I didn’t figure it out that long ago either (also 30). And I have to remind myself everyday that, This. Is. It. Laugh now. Relax now. Hug your baby now. There may not be a later, and surely there will never be a later that’s perfect.

  • Reply Katia April 6, 2014 at 11:31 AM

    So much <3 for this post, need to read it a bajillion times over!

    I am the same as you…those inspirational quotes do nothing but instill rage. ESPECIALLY when paired with a crappy photo and some gaudy, hideous fonts whose colors soooooo don't match the tone of the quote, OR the colors of the photo…kill. Me.

    In MY perfect world, all of these graphics would be perfect and pleasing to the eye 😛

    • Reply sweetmadeleine April 7, 2014 at 1:31 PM

      Ha! White space! Kerning! Font/sentiment consistency! I hear ya

  • Reply Sarajdee April 6, 2014 at 3:34 PM

    I had the same epiphany at 30! The quotes used to enrage me too, but now they leave me sad for the people who put them up, if they have a lot of them. Worse are the platitudes on pictures of women holding gauzy scarves on the beach passed around on facebook; I can’t help reading them in my head in a desperate sob, imaginary empty wine glass clutched in white knuckled hand. After some observation, I cynically made a rule that one’s distance to complete nervous breakdown is inversely proportional to how many of those things one posts on one’s wall. I assume a couple here or there are okay-like keeping a favorite teddy bear as a memento is sweet, but keeping your entire childhood toy collection on your bed into adulthood is alarming. It screams somebody isn’t coping…

    This, I so do: “…but it can be problematic in real life when you go to eighty-seven shoe stores looking for the Platonic ideal of ankle boots which you have materialized in your head and are now desperately trying to claw into existence through sheer will.” The worst-worst!- is when I am positive I saw somebody/multiple somebodies with the exact boot/shirt/skirt I seek, so I “know” it’s out there. People have this item, it should not be hard to find!

    • Reply sweetmadeleine April 7, 2014 at 1:32 PM

      I love the image of a complete breakdown amidst inspirational quotes. Something you’d find in a Chuck Palahniuk novel 🙂

  • Reply Lisa April 6, 2014 at 4:10 PM 🙂

  • Reply Penny April 7, 2014 at 2:48 AM

    I think I came to this realisation eight months ago, when I had my baby. I used to get stressed when I didn’t wake up to the perfect day with the perfect cup of coffee and the perfect husband. Now I’m happy to start the day in daylight with a luke warm cup of instant coffee. When there’s kids you have to let it all go. Muddling through the day is all there is….and it is perfect in it’s own way.

  • Reply jamieramirez April 7, 2014 at 1:20 PM

    i think that just because you’ve realized something, it doesn’t mean you make it a part of your permanent perspective. you realize, and then re-realize things over and over again throughout life, and this is one of those pesky ones that it’s hard to make yourself realize.

    it was perfect timing for you to remind me of this line of thinking, though. i’m not moving, but i’m in a transition right now, too: a semi-DIY bathroom remodel. i can’t tell you how much i dreaded the day when it would finally happen: the toilet and shower, gone. that’s right. bathroom down to studs. no bathroom. we’re peeing & washing our hair in the kitchen sink, not a big deal. we’re pooping into bags in a thing called the “luggable loo” (a 5-gallon bucket fitted with a toilet seat), and that’s no biggie. the thing is, you get really dirty doing home improvement, and there’s no way to take a SHOWER. well, we have this camping shower, a 5-gallon bag that can solar-heat the water (but we’re just filling it with warm tap water). i set that up in the backyard, hung it from a tree branch & surrounded all that with a shower curtain and a grungy old blanket. but i have to walk back there in flip-flops and a bathrobe & convince my dogs to keep their distance b/c this is not play time.

    so of course, right now is not my life. right now is in between my life. right? last night was the first time i had to take a shower in the backyard. well, i didn’t think it through, and the sloped dirt surface i was standing on turned my flip-flops into little sleds and as soon as i turned on the water to start rinsing my soaped-up self off, i went sliding out of the shower curtain enclosure, not only scratching up my naked back side (and exposing it to any neighbors who might have been looking up at the excessively bright light source up on the hill in my backyard), but getting mud all over myself and the scrubby sponge. as soon as the moment of shock was over, when i’m sure i emitted a squeal, i started laughing hysterically. i realized that this WAS that worst case scenario of what can happen when you have to shower in the backyard, and it was pretty hilarious, and totally fixable. i don’t know how i didn’t think about how impossible it would be to stand on that surface once it was wet. whoops! THIS is a moment that i’ll always remember about the bathroom remodel. not the ones where everything went smoothly and just-as-expected. and if THIS MOMENT is the one i’m going to remember, then isn’t THIS life, right NOW, not a moment-in-between?

    today i have to build a new shower enclosure on a flat surface, and i’m bummed out about that, and i know i didn’t get very clean, b/c my armpits smell half clean and half like yesterday’s soccer game sweat. but i no longer fear being without a bathroom, even if this remodel takes three months to complete. and i’m so glad. thankfully i had just read this very blog post of yours and it was fresh in my mind, and it sprang to mind when i slipped, and i managed to find the situation comical instead of feeling sorry for myself. great timing, madeleine! thanks!

  • Reply Kirstie MacGowan April 10, 2014 at 2:48 AM

    You know, I read this the other day and I cannot stop thinking about it now. Its. so. true. Life will never be problem free and you have to live in the now. YOLO, right?! 😉

    • Reply sweetmadeleine April 11, 2014 at 9:01 PM

      Ahahahah! YOLO! That should have been my title 😉

  • Reply julie. April 13, 2014 at 4:56 PM

    thank you for blogging. i stumbled across your blog this morning and have spent a chunk of this rainy sunday reading it. you have a very accessible writing style and a way of unearthing life altering truths that makes the alterations seem manageable and silly instead of overwhelming.
    so yes. keep it up!

    • Reply sweetmadeleine April 15, 2014 at 8:33 PM

      I had to question whether this was spam- thank you, Julie! Your kind words mean a lot to me!

  • Reply My Own Happy | missandmisters April 22, 2014 at 5:08 PM

    […] read a post by Sweet Madeleine recently on the subject of seeing our life as a series of problems to be solved. […]

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