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Don’t wait for the most painful proof

Posted byWritten by David

We’ve set our default to act when action becomes the hardest

Is there something in your life that could and should be changed or fixed but you’re holding off because it’s just not bad enough yet?

Let me beg your pardon for returning to the Marketplace program for this week’s newsletter inspiration.

Last week, Molly Wood, host of Marketplace Tech, lamented:

It’s frustrating to see that here in the United States, with the pandemic just being one example, it’s like we need the most painful proof before we will act. Do you think we’re going to have to have something far, far worse, the worst-case scenario, before we actually have awareness?

“It’s like we need the most painful proof before we will act.”

This happens all the time with our personal health. And we see it increasingly more with our civic health, too.

We fail through this idiocy everyday with addiction. You’ve heard and probably used the refrain: “He just hasn’t hit rock bottom yet.”

An entire social construct and treatment system has been built from this deadly belief. If I don’t want to change, then the downward spiral is predictable. And if I don’t want the change, then you cannot be expected to want it more than me. So, we have the snake eating its tail. I have to hit a moment that so intrinsically shocks my conscience that I then want to want to act. And only then, can a treatment care system (and sometimes our own family) be open and helpful to me.

Everything is wrong with that scenario.


Having personally lived in that hellish bottom-seeking cycle, the psychological pull is profoundly difficult to escape. Every temporary respite from the hellfire is too small a glimpse of freedom.

The Alice In Chains song, “Down in a Hole” resonates. Jerry Cantrell writes:

Down in a hole, feelin’ so small
Down in a hole, losin’ my soul
I’d like to fly but my wings have been so denied

Everything and everyone says you have to go further in that hole. Your wings have been denied.

Nothing changes. We just wait.

We do this civically, too.

How many of our city budgets could be stronger if we fixed infrastructure and systems before they become failures? Look around your community. Is there a bridge or series of streets that get little repairs every few years? What if we fixed them properly, used new, more sustainable solutions and reduced long-term maintenance?

How much money do we pour into social programs that prop up failed or failing systems? What if we identified the underlying causes and invested upstream to stem the need of those services? What if other sectors and stakeholders saw their role in the equation and made appropriate changes?

Getting people to act a certain way is really hard. Oftentimes it comes down to framing. The Nobel Prize winner, Daniel Kahneman, says we frame things too narrowly. This narrow view puts too much weight — too much emotional weight — on the immediate and short-term issues and decisions.

Watch:Daniel Kahneman: Why We Make Bad Decisions About Money (And What We Can Do About It)

Potholes. Some cities have full-time crews that just go around all day filling and fixing potholes. This makes the local residents (voters) who use that road instantly happy. But in the long view, maybe there’s a better way to design and build the road (or use of the road) to reduce the frequency of potholes?

Addiction. Addiction is about numbing and pleasure. Before we actually reach the clinical and neurological state of addiction that we get from alcohol, drugs, sex, gambling, shopping, sugar, or food, a boost of temporary pleasure pulls us out of the hole, away from the pain; it gives us those wings we were denied.

But what if I directly confronted that pain? What if I learned there were ways to manage that pain (or trauma) in a healthy way that didn’t require a mind-altering substance or experience? What if my community, my worth, and my social connections imbued a sense of belonging and resilience from the beginning of my life? Would any subsequent trauma not have the intense impact we see it have on so many today?

These are the questions we have to ask if we seek complete and lasting solutions to such problems like addiction.

The challenge we find ourselves in is attempting to reverse course from the most painful place. Once we’ve let something go too far, sometimes it’s easier to mitigate the pain than attempt to completely eliminate it.

What are you letting slide toward the most painful proof before you do something? What if this is your chance to act before your wings are so denied?

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