Commentary: A problem exchange might tell if you’re really suffering

It was a midsummer party a couple of years back.

An annual one of the sort where you meet people you don’t see for the rest of the year and then look forward to the party for a chance to talk with them again.

And it was late.

The band had departed more than an hour before; the cheese cubes had turned soft in the warm air; and the remaining few of us still there had scattered ourselves on chairs and couches of a screened-in back porch like the carrots, celery and cherry tomatoes abandoned on a vegetable tray.

Although the light came from curlicue bulbs, darkness snugged up to the screen to give the gathering the feel of a campfire. Touched by that darkness — enveloped in quiet — people began to share some of their personal worries with friends.

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And a few of them mentioned problems with their children.

A couple who obviously have talked over the problem they had with their daughter many times in private began to unburden themselves.

Then a college student, she wasn’t demonstrating the responsibility they had hoped she’d have at this point in her life. All this seemed clear to them because, she had repeatedly failed to change the oil in the car they had bought for her.

The two of them - and particularly the father - had spoken with her multiple times about it. And they both worried that her failure to take action might be the first step in a failure to take responsibility for other obligations in her life.

I could feel their sincerity and hear in their voices how it weighed on them.

But in the light coming off the dashboard on the way home, I thought of the many parents I knew who would have waited in a line stretching city blocks long, then paid a considerable amount of cash to be able to purchase that problem and exchange it for the one they had.

In the time since, I have tried to come up with some kind of system that allows us to compare our problems with those of others.

And a few months back, I came up with the notion of a problem exchange patterned after a stock exchange.

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People across a community, a region, a nation or maybe the world, could contact problem brokers, tell them of the problems they have, and pay the brokers to go to the busy floor of, say, the New York Problem Exchange and trade the problem for someone else’s.

But the exchange would have to have a catchier name.

When it comes to stock exchanges, I prefer names like the Footsie, the spoken version of London’s Financial Times Stock Exchange Group, and the DAX, which is Germany’s. Both are short and catchy, like a friend’s nickname.

I’m thinking about calling the problem exchange the Wrinkle - or The Angst.

There are obvious problems with an index like this, of course.

In some cases, it might be too blunt to be effective. It and would have to avoid the use of codes like YDRHAP for You Don’t Really Have A Problem.

That’s the one I would have received some years back when my parents were living in Florida and my Mom told me my Dad was on the floor in pain from a kidney stone. Having had a kidney stone last year, I know it’s no fun, but, as my pastor of the time told me when my Dad fell ill, “It’s the kind of thing they can treat, Tom.”

He, of course, had talked with many people who would have waited in lines city blocks long and paid a considerable amount of money to buy a condition of that sort.

But, at the time, I was simply upset because the father I loved was in pain. And there’s nothing really wrong with that.

Pastors often play the part of a problem exchange index. Seeing problems all the time, they have a sense of how serious they are and can reassure people of where things really stand.

So do friends and even acquaintances who come out of the closet about their own problems when a friend has a similar problem, sympathizing, reassuring or just making themselves available. They often are rewarded with tears of appreciation.

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As my thoughts wandered through this territory, I seemed to recall another index aimed at the kind of thing my problem exchange was - an index of suffering.

Google took me to the International Human Suffering Index, which the site defined as “a composite index of economic and social well-being that can be used to show changes in human well-being, based on a number of key variables.”

The variables include “life expectancy, daily calorie intake, clean drinking water, infant immunization, secondary school enrolment, GDP per capita, rate of inflation, communications technology, political freedom, and civil rights.”

Many of these things sound like “issues,” of course.

We wouldn’t put them on a checklist of whether we’re having a good day. Still, they are the measures that determine whether people have a good life.

I’ll end this meander with a recollection of the Bahamas from Hurricane Dorian - one I’m not proud of.

The Weather Channel and other outlets did a fine job of covering the destruction it wrought on the Bahamas. And I did see the images of the destruction.

But also my own big takeaway was not about the relief that would be required to address the destruction there - destruction that seemed incomprehensible.

It was instead, a sense of relief that, due to factors beyond the control of anyone, the worst of the destruction did not fall in the United States to hurt anybody I know.

A cultural wall had prevented me from taking the full measure done by the hurricane with the slow moving eye wall.

Or maybe I had allowed it to do so.

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