Newspaper Column #10: Why do some problems defy, no, NOT change? – Part II

As it appeared in the Sunday Standard, Botswana on  Sunday Dec 23, 2012 edition.

Seeing the Trees and the Forest

If the problem is solved, it should not come back.  Period!  We would be seeing results.

If it recurs, then this is a sign that we have not solved it.  Yet.  Period!

Last week, we ran a story of the occurrence (an event) of 9/11, and then we learned it was actually a re-ocurrence (pattern) of an issue that has now become persistent or as we say, stubborn.  The event was not meant to be one-off.

Of course, we know that now.

The more one ‘did this’, the more the other ‘did that back’, which in turn led one to ‘do this’ and so on (see figure).  Similar stories run between the eastern and the western worlds.  Between locals and foreigners, between husband and wife, families, neighbours, communities, organizations, nations, between mothers-in-law and daughters-in-law, and so on.  You can substitute A and B for any of the above, and it will explain its recurrence.  Try it.

Reinforcing Loop

The purpose of the recurrences is to point to the need to learn of another way to solve stubborn problems.  We learn these by watching its behaviour over time, even before our lifetimes.

Characteristics of vicious cycles

Firstly, the more the cycle runs viciously, the more it becomes expensive.  Think the 2008 economic global recession.  Some would say, we are still feeling its effects, today in 2012.

In circular causality there is NO starting or ending points.  The root cause has a cause.  I know this defies everything we have learned.  This reasoning is important as it will help us appreciate that the starting point is not in any one part of the cycle.

For example, the thinking rainfall causes vegetation is part true.  It is part true, because, vegetation too in turn causes rainfall.  This can also mean we cannot get away by saying that the developed countries have ‘caused’ global warming.  Their TVs and phones are in our homes.  If we did not demand for them, they would not have been producing it.

But unlike a wheel that retards on friction, this one gathers its strength with each iteration of the cycle.  It grows stronger.

The land appears drier.  More youths walk on the streets for jobs.  More adults succumb to HIV.  School grades continue to decline.  Couples divorce.  Addictions increase.  Crime and corruption increases.  And so on.  It is now behaving like a bullet that has just been released from its gun.  It continues to stay on its course and resist our efforts to change it until we are able to see and learn to work with the cycle as a whole.

Yet, separately, both sides would find it difficult to see the interwoven and vicious nature of this circle of causality between the two.

It was obviously difficult for ‘Bush and Bin Laden’ to sit side-by-side with each other, to see for themselves this non-stopping (and vicious) nature of this cycle that keeps all of us in a spin.  It is still difficult today.  It happens to the best of us.  Often, we become too busy either looking out at ourselves or at the other party.  Yet, till we do so, the issue remains unresolved.

Ten years on, from 2011, we now know that this is true.  How about ten years from today?

Lastly, the trick is not about working at it harder.  We have done so exactly that since biblical times.  Having said so, it will be difficult to appreciate this failure, in just seeing our lifetime of experiences.

The solution

But if this circle of causality is the real culprit, then blaming any one side of it will really not solve the problem.  While we could blame the people or government or a sector separately for our woes, we really do so because it is the easier way out.  It is easy because it is the part of the circle of causality that is obvious to us.  We are usually oblivious to the rest of the the circle of causality.

Blaming is therefore not a solution.

Can vicious cycles of causality turn around by itself?  No!

It is like a wheel that has been set into motion.  Like a bullet released from the gun.  It does not reverse its course on its own.

To solve it, first the circle needs to become more obvious to our perceptions.

The solution to this interwoven complexity then lies in working with the interwoven nature of the problem as a whole.  Not directly at the problem per se or parts of the causality.

How do we do then treat these vicious cycles?

Here’s a story to illustrate how this may be done.  This is Part I.  Part II will be presented in the next insert.

The title of the story is, “The Healing Poison”.

A Story

This daughter-in-law (DIL) finds herself in a difficult relationship with her mother-in-law (MIL) (see figure)!

She (DIL) had done everything possible to try and bridge the gap between the two, except the more she tried, the worse their relationship seems to become.  She has now arrived at a point where she has concluded that “The problem is mother-in-law (MIL).  So, if I wish to get rid of the problem, then all I have to do is to get rid of mother-in-law”.

Except, it was not easy, to get rid of MIL.  The more she tried, the more she worried that somebody might suspect it was her.  One afternoon at wits end, as she sat down to rest, she suddenly thought of her favourite uncle.  Someone, whom as she grew up took care of her problems for her and she gas come to respect him for his wisdom.  She decided, she should pay him a visit the very next day to seek help to her current problem.

The uncle was delighted to see her.  As they settled down, she starts talking.  “What is happening?” asks the uncle.  The DIL spills her beans.  So when the uncle asks, “What do you want to do?”, she shares that she’s arrived at this conclusion that should we get rid of the MIL, the problem will be solved!  The uncles probes and asks, so “What do you want me to do about this?”  She quips, “I would like you to help me get rid of MIL!”

“I see.  Wait here”, says the uncle.

A few minutes later, he pops back and this time, he is holding a small bottle with some liquid inside.  He then adds, “Here’s what you need to do.  Every day, drop two drops of this liquid, in a hot cup of milk.  Present the cup of milk to her, one for every night for the next six months, and make sure that she drinks it.”

“Well, that’s easy.  Is there anything else I have to do?”, asks the DIL.

“Yes, there is one more thing you have to do.”  “What is that?” she asks.

“Well,” adds the uncle.  “Every night, when you present the milk to your MIL, you must make sure that you smile.  Because if you do not, somebody might suspect it was you.”

Hmm …. that’s going to be tough.  To smile.  “Are you sure she will be gone, at the end of six months?”  “Yes!”, assured the uncle.” “Well, in that case, I shall do it!”

On that note, the uncle hands the bottle to her and wishes her well.  As the DIL turns quickly to walk back home, you could almost detect a twinkle in the uncle’s eye and a smile on his lips!

Could the uncle see the circle of causality between the two?  Does he see the trees and the forest at the same time?  How about the DIL?  The MIL?  How do you think the story would end?

These will be the subject of discussion of this column in the new year.  Happy discovering and learning with your family and friends over the holidays!

Merry Christmas and of course, wishing you ahead, may everything you wish for, become real for you in the New Year!

Ms Sheila Damodaran, an international strategy development consultant for national planning commissions, welcomes comments at  For upcoming programmes, refer to