Lesson 2: Solve One Problem at a Time

Survival stories are my jam these days.

I can’t really relate to most movie-worthy feats of extreme physical and mental endurance, but survival stories have messages that are helpful when my chronic illness makes it hard to get through a whole grocery shopping trip, or I’ve woken up feeling sick for the hundredth time this year.

I recently finished reading the The Martian with my husband. For those who haven’t read it or seen the movie adaptation: it’s a fun, fast-paced, sci-fi survival story about fictional astronaut Mark Watney, who becomes stranded on Mars.

One of Mark’s key traits is his ability to focus on and solve one problem at a time. It’s a strength that shows up frequently in tales of survival, both fiction and nonfiction.

mark watney the martian
(Yes, this quote is from the movie, not the book, but it’s a nice summary of the concept.)

It can be overwhelming dealing with a long-term or chronic illness, because you have so many problems happening all at once, or in rapid succession.

This is compounded by the fact that you don’t usually know what the root cause of the problem is, and even if you do, there’s no easy solution. This is especially true for those of us with “mystery illnesses” like fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue syndrome, migraines, or IBS.

Solving one problem at a time may not fix the overarching problem, but it can make your immediate situation much more tolerable.

Am I in pain?

What can I do about that right now?

Take a pill? Do some deep breathing? Use a heating pad?

These may not be long-term solutions, but they’ll help in the moment.

Solving one small problem—or at least dialing it down and making it less intrusive—can have a ripple effect. It can allow you to be more capable of solving the next problem that arises, or at least the next one down on your list.

There are times when you won’t be able to solve a problem. Some symptoms are just going to happen, and you may not have a good treatment option.

At times like that, I t I identify things that might make the problem worse, and try to avoid them. I attempt to offset the effects of the problem in other areas.

I may not be fixing leaks in a space suit or cultivating my own food on an alien planet, but I can appreciate the one-problem-at-a-time survival mentality.

 

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