Stafford: The wisdom of people, problems and potential

“Where you have people, you’re going to have problems, but you also have potential.”

- Willie J. Young Sr.

A week or so ago, I heard a voice across the room say: “I wish I’d have known that 20 years ago!”

That time span might have been sufficient for me at one point.

But no more.

By Dec. 7, the final day of the Medicare Open Enrollment period, I hope to find a supplemental plan that will cover me for 30 years of ignorance.

I’m willing to accept a substantial co-pay and out-of-pocket expenses. But only if the policy allows me, when I discover another of my black holes of ignorance, to hit Command Z, go back in time, and relive those years knowing what I just learned.

It was about 30 years ago that Steve Zartman tried to teach me one of those “I wish I’d known that” thoughts.

Steve was a psychologist in Springfield, and a check of the handy online Rutherford B. Hayes Obituaries Index reminded me he left us on a sad day in 1998.

I’d interviewed Steve a half dozen times while he was working for Mental Health Services for Clark County and, on the day in question, met him at the group practice he and others had set up on North Yellow Springs Street.

I don’t remember what the story was about, and I don’t recall the question that I had asked. But his answer has always stuck with me: “You know, Tom, life could be looked at as a series of problems.”

As a counselor, Steve was in the business of helping people solve problems. I was a person like all persons who has to deal with problems. What’s more, he wasn’t charging me a dime for his advice.

So why didn’t journalist-me ask follow-up questions?

I just didn’t like his answer. I had a problem with problems. The prospect of getting up every morning knowing that an unending series of them would be waiting for me – even before the coffee was ready – seemed a rather unappealing life.

It was like the movie Groundhog Day, which was released about that time, in which Bill Murray is forced to live the same day over and over and over again, not just ad nauseum but ad crazium.

That essential problem with problems continued, through the rest of my full-time working life and into retirement.

Only 28 years later did I feel the first gentle tap on the cranium that would continue the education Steve Zartman had initiated.

That came about two years ago, when I was writing a story about the passing of Willie Young Sr., who died of complications of COVID.

At the time, a tribute released by Ohio State University, where he worked with students who lived off campus, mentioned a formulation Young called his Three Ps: “Where you have people, you’re going to have problems, but you also have potential.”

At the time, it struck me as interesting.

Weeks ago, when I wrote a column about the COVID-delayed celebration of Young’s life, I encountered it again.

And this time, the Three Ps passed through my skull and dura matter into what the Agatha Christie’s sleuth Hercule Poirot called the “little gray cells.”

What really struck me about the Three Ps was the order in which Young, a Springfielder, presents them.

Note that he begins with people, touches on problems and finishes with potential.

The import of that becomes immediately clear if we reorder the sentence by keeping “people” first but flip-flopping “potential” and “problems.”

That gives us this: Where you have people, you also have potential, but you’re going to have problems.

That gives problems the last word, of course, and the lasting sour taste in the mouth.

In doing so it suggests that the only way to avoid problems is to avoid people.

There is a measure of truth to that, of course.

My own purposely smart aleck version puts it this way: Everything would be easier if people weren’t involved.

But Young’s take is more balanced and hopeful.

He reminds us to anticipate problems in a way that makes it less likely that they’ll overcome us. And he gives potential the last word, reminding us how we can further the cause our hearts tell us we should be committed to.

Two more things.

One: The writer in me has to shout out what an achievement it is to create a sentence with the wisdom of a proverb and the elegant simplicity of an algebraic equation. In teaching us a powerful lesson, it doesn’t even break a sweat.

Two – and this is crucial – to get the full benefit of Young’s wisdom, at the next census, we will all need to self-identify as people – critters who, wherever you meet us, are always carrying problems and potential.

Hope you had a good Thanksgiving, and please don’t kill yourselves shopping.

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