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Saturday, June 27, 2009

What Kind Of Troubles Would You Rather Have?

Everybody has bad luck and troubles at some time or another in their life. The question is what kinds of troubles would one rather have, assuming that trouble is inevitable? What kind of trouble has the least long-term impact and/or trauma?

I have given this question some thought. I started thinking about this problem when my family and I were once stranded when we were on vacation and had to buy a new set of full-priced tickets to get back home. Yes, it ended up being a lot of trouble and it ended up costing me a lot of money. Friends and relatives were somewhat shocked that we had gotten into that kind of trouble. And, quite flippantly, I told them that is what money is for: to get you out of this kind of trouble. And I realized that as long as money solves the problem and makes it go away, it really was the least troublesome of the kinds of troubles and problems one could have.

I started cataloging all the kinds of troubles one could have. I came up with the list below, which may or may not be complete. Some may choose to break some of the categories below into multiple types and so on. But essentially, in broad terms, I think everyone faces troubles that fall into one of these categories:

  • Financial problems
  • Work-related problems
  • Legal problems
  • Health problems
  • Emotional problems

Obviously, problems could start out as one and then start having ramifications or create other kinds of problems also. For instance, health problems could lead to financial problems, or emotional problems could lead to work-related issues also. The question now becomes, if you know life is full of problems, what kind of problems do you hope it will be full of?

I have actually ranked these problems into a sort of hierarchy that describes what my priorities in life are. Everyone has different priorities in life, so everyone might have a different ranking. I will go over my ranking and what lead me to it, and hopefully it will get others thinking about what their priorities in life are and what the rankings should be.

Here is my ranking from most desirable kind of problem to least desirable kind of problem:

  • Financial problems
  • Work-related problems
  • Legal problems
  • Health problems
  • Emotional problems

Let me explain why.

Financial problems: This can include any unexpected problem which requires you to spend money to extricate yourself out of. It could be mundane things like a sudden appliance breakdown at home, a sudden auto repair bill, or more dramatic like my getting stranded with my family with no way home except a new set of air tickets. I am obviously not including financial problems that stem from other kinds of problems, and the reason is somewhat obvious: it is the root problem I am ranking here, not the myriad consequent and subsequent problems it brings along.

Money is a means to an end in my worldview. Money has no intrinsic value by itself. Money can buy you many nice things, but, as the saying goes, the best things in life really are mostly free. I don't think it is a surprise, therefore, that I feel that financial problems are really not problems at all in many cases. It is actually what money was designed for in the first place: a means to an end. In this case, the end is to solve whatever problem you have and get you going again. Yes, it can be painful in the short term and the setback may result in various unpleasant consequences.

But, it is important to be philosophical about it and make sure that the financial problem does not lead to other problems, especially problems of other kinds. If you let it get to you, it might change quickly into a health problem or other worse kinds of problems. That is why, it is important to have a rainy day fund, and make sure you can absorb financial problems philosophically, and keep it a purely financial problem, without allowing it to affect other aspects of your life and changing into other kinds of problems. The reason financial problems are the most trivial in my worldview is that most financial problems, when well-handled are just that: financial problems and nothing more. They don't have to become any other kind of problem, ever.

Work-Related Problems: This could include layoffs, frictions with co-workers or a boss, company going bankrupt, too much work and too little time for life, etc. I rank these kinds of problems just below financial problems in desirability because in many cases, these problems are difficult to keep isolated as just work-related problems. In my world-view, work is a means to an end too. It helps me earn money, which is another of these means to different ends. So, work by itself has no intrinsic value to me.

If you agree with that philosophy, then the obvious solution to most work-related problems is to just get different work. Have problems getting along with a boss, or work sucking the life out of you? Quit and start over elsewhere. I know that it is more complicated than that, but the basic idea is not very complicated. If you want the work-related problem to stay work-related, that might be the kind of drastic action that is required.

In most case, though, it does not work out quite that simply and at the very least, work-related problems lead to financial problems also. Hence, their ranking below purely financial problems in terms of desirability. But once again, it is important to be philosophical about it. Isolate the problem and make sure it does not become worse kinds of problems. I will be honest, I have had work-related problems. And I have considered quitting and taking up a much lower-paying job if that is what it takes to get out of a particular work-related situation. It hasn't come to that ever, but I am fully prepared to take that step and keep the consequences isolated to my finances for obvious reasons.

Legal Problems: This is a rather large category of problems and depending on what kind of legal problem you have, the consequences could be drastically different. Most kinds of legal problems will at least require a lot of money to be spent on legal fees, hiring lawyers, etc. The final result could be more financial problems resulting from a monetary damage award or a stint in probation or jail if it was a criminal legal problem.

Either way, legal problems are likely to have severe consequences which are very difficult to keep isolated. It can lead to financial problems at the very least, but could result in work-related problems, health problems and/or emotional problems also. But one may be able to isolate the consequences to just financial, or financial and work-related. It is almost impossible to isolate legal problems to just remain legal problems (unless, perhaps you are a lawyer), and I am not sure I would desire them more anyways even if they could be so isolated. The problem is that legal problems are highly unpredictable and their evolution and disposal are outside your immediate control in almost all cases.

Health Problems: This kind of problem requires no explanation in terms of what it is. Everybody knows a health problem when they see one. I am not talking about a common cold or the seasonal flu now, but about chronic and/or acute problems that are life-threatening at worst and quality-of-life-threatening at best.

Now we are getting into the big leagues here in terms of problems. Health problems, in my worldview, are always a problem even if the financial consequences are practically nothing because you have good insurance and the work-related consequences are practically nothing because you have disability insurance and/or enough sick leave. You come into the world with only your body to call your own, and health problems threaten to take that most precious of your possessions away from you at worst. At best, they threaten severely how, when and where you get to use that precious possession and put limits on enjoying your body like others with good health do.

I may be biased in this respect because I have always been healthy and value my health as a consequence. Perhaps a person plagued with ill-health learns to live within the limitations imposed by the problem and does not look at it as such a big deal. This is another philosophical question in itself: I view financial problems as trivial because I have learned to live with the limitations imposed by such problems. I view health problems as highly threatening because I have no experience with them except by hearing of the health problems others have. Perhaps, if I had always been sickly but had the Midas touch and was sitting on hordes of wealth, I might consider health problems as trivial and financial problems as highly threatening. It is a hypothetical situation I can not evaluate the relative merits of both honestly outside my biases.

In fact, the bigger philosophical insight from this might be that your ranking is based on what kinds of troubles you are used to and what sorts you are unfamiliar with. Maybe I am attaching way more significance to this ranking than it is worth because it may not reflect your worldview or priorities in life, but just your familiarity with different types of problems. Interesting thought, but I will have to set that aside for now and continue on.

Emotional Problems: This is another grab-bag of various categories all bundled up (a bit like legal problems). I include various things like marital problems, estrangement with relatives, loss of reputation and/or the respect, admiration and love of people who matter to you.

In this respect, I am reminded of two quotes by famous people. One of them is: If a man loses his wealth, he loses nothing. If he loses his health, he loses something. If he loses his character, he loses everything. The second is: As long as a man has character, nothing else matters. And if he does not have character, nothing else matters either.

I was conflicted for quite a while about the relative ranking of health problems and emotional problems. Would I rather live to a ripe old age reviled by and earning the scorn and curses of people around me or would I rather die young surrounded by well-wishers who would honestly mourn me? I think the quotes above reflect my views on the matter though I could never imagine being quite so eloquent in expressing them. I think I have made the right choice in ranking emotional problems at the bottom in terms of desirability.

I guess I am a sentimental old fool after all, in spite of the bravado I put on. I am not openly emotional and I don't wear my heart on my sleeve. But I do have a heart and it is not as hard as people think it is. It may be one of the reasons why I find it difficult to carry grudges. It may also be why I hate confrontations and would prefer to smooth things over quickly in any conflict rather than letting it brew and take on ugly overtones.

Problems are never-ending in life. But if there are no emotional problems in life, if you are well-loved and well-respected, there will always be people around you willing to help you out of any other problems you might have. All the money in the world, the best job in the world, and the fittest body can not buy good relationships or the honest good wishes of well-wishers. Or, maybe I am a fool and I need to have paid more heed to the tongue-in-cheek definition of spouse: a person who will stand by you through all the trouble you wouldn't have had if you had not gotten married in the first place!

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