In 1972, the whole world united behind then-President Richard Nixon to declare war on cancer. Institutions were founded, huge amounts of money spent, and countless brilliant men and women dedicated their careers to solving this problem—and to be sure, breakthroughs were made. Yet here we are, almost half a century later, and the word from the CDC is that cancer is soon expected to dethrone heart disease as the world's number-1 killer. Not only that, but the diagnosis of cancer is expected to increase by 50 percent in the next 15 to 20 years, to epidemic proportions. How can that be? I don’t have the cure for cancer, and I certainly don’t claim to be smarter than all those doctors and researchers, but the only explanation that I’ve ever been able to come up with is that we’ve got to be looking in the wrong place.
In the very first college psychology class I ever took, the professor began—before he’d even spoke a word—by walking to the blackboard and writing this phrase: the problem is NEVER the problem. I didn’t add that emphasis, by the way. Those six words are one of the most profound lessons of my entire education, and it’s taken me decades to understand just how right he was.
In counseling and therapy, nearly everyone you work with walks in the door ready to tell you why they need your help. After all, why go to therapy if you don’t have a problem? The trouble is that my professor was right, the real problem is never, ever what people think it is. You may remember the genie question I’ve used in the past to illustrate this point. If you ask a person what they want most in the world and give them only ten seconds to answer, most of them will answer wrong. They’ll talk about external circumstances: often something material like money, acclaim, or sex. Sometimes they’ll go with something like health or for a relationship to be improved. That seems better, right?
The trick is why they want what they say they want. If you keep asking that question, the answer always comes back to an internal state: peace, joy, love, that sort of thing. The internal state is what they’re really after, not the circumstance. And the circumstance will almost never purchase the internal state as they think it will. That’s why so many outwardly successful people are really miserable and disillusioned.
But I can even take it a little further than that. I think that for 99 percent of you reading this, I could not only tell you that you’re wrong about your biggest problem, but I could tell you what your biggest problem really is without ever meeting or speaking to you.
That’s because the answer is always a relationship. “Now wait a minute,” you might be saying, “when we were talking about the genie question a moment ago, you said that improving a relationship was one of the wrong answers. Now suddenly it’s the only right one?” If you were thinking that, good catch! But there is a difference. When people talk about improving a relationship in the genie question (or in counseling and therapy, for that matter), they typically mean that they want the other person in this relationship to behave differently. Sometimes they might be trying desperately to change their own behavior, but those are still just circumstances. Circumstances can be important. They can be a problem. But they are never the problem.
The problem is always internal. I believe that we have a choice, every day and every moment, whether to live life according to love or according to fear. We know now that the hypothalamus is constantly comparing every experience that comes in through our senses to our memories, searching for any trauma memories that might throw up a red flag and put you into a fear-based survival state. We all tend to think that we live our lives making conscious choices in response to our circumstances, but the latest research says that almost all of it happens on a sort of autopilot, an unconscious response to stimulus that is programmed into us by the time we’re 10 years old.
Lasting happiness doesn’t come through that sort of stimulus/response. You’ll always be up and down—and probably more down than up. The unconscious is biased heavily toward negativity in order to minimize your exposure to danger. In my experience, the only choice that can override that programming is to live according to love in the present moment. It seems to me that love is the only thing the human subconscious considers more important than survival—I don’t make the rules.
Well, that’s an internal decision. You’ll never do it perfectly, but you have the power to make that change—and the only way to express it is through relationships.
Have a blessed, wonderful day!