Challenges and Opportunities:
Some Philosophical Reflections


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"In life, you will always be faced with a series of God-ordained opportunities brilliantly disguised as problems and challenges."

 – Charles Udall

A central feature of the human experience is the series of challenges that each of us is given.  Each challenge we face can be an opportunity for profound growth and transformation.

I believe that, on a deep level, each of us knows what it means to transform challenges into opportunities.  This is a theme that has played throughout the human experience.  It has been the key to our evolution as a species.  It has been the key to our civilization.

This theme plays through each of our individual lives.  Challenges are given to us, and it is up to each of us how to respond.

Challenges of the Body

Deeply rooted in the human experience are the challenges of physical survival, mortality and physical illness. 

The challenge of mortality is the same for each of us.  It includes the challenges of grief and loss.

The challenge of physical illness is different for each of us.  Afflictions of the physical body take thousands of different forms.  Although each of us still faces this challenge, the revolutions of medical science have been truly miraculous, dramatically transforming the entire human experience.

The technology of medical diagnosis and treatment represents a pinnacle of our civilization.  These technologies are so advanced and complex that few of us will ever comprehend even a fraction of them.  Many years of intensive training are required to administer even a small sub-specialty of this colossal science. 

Challenges of the Mind

The challenges of day-to-day survival are deeply rooted in the human experience.  Until very recently in our evolutionary timeline, it was our daily lot to face the threat of predators, hostile neighbors, starvation and the elements. 

Over millions of years, our bodies and brains evolved to respond to these daily threats to our survival.  Then, almost overnight, the nature of these threats dramatically changed.

Suddenly, we no longer faced the daily life-or-death challenges of eating and being eaten, devastation by the elements and attack from our neighbors.  Now, with our bodies and brains still adapted to the old threats, we faced new challenges.  Our new, day-to-day challenges are complex psychological stresses: mental, emotional, social, political and economic.

Our bodies and brains react to these stresses as though they were the life-or-death threats of old.  We are often left with overwhelming feelings of fear, anxiety, depression and confusion.

We have struggled to develop psychological sciences to understand and alleviate this suffering.  Compared to the successes of medical science, the results – until now – have been  abysmal.

Why have we had such a hard time responding to these challenges of the mind?  Perhaps there is something about them that has been profoundly baffling and disorienting.  It has been hard to 'get a handle' on them.  They have been slippery.  They have felt like shifting sands; we have seemed to be too close to them to clearly conceptualize them.  And when, in order to achieve clarity, we have become detached and intellectual, much of what is essential has seemed to drop out of view.

In facing these challenges as individuals, we don't easily turn to abundant resources to help us, as we would when faced with a physical illness.  Often, we struggle alone, not realizing that we are simply experiencing an aspect of the human condition.  We adapt the best we can, but, very often, our very adaptations blind us to the true nature of the challenges we are facing.

Now, after many decades of wandering and searching, we have finally begun to find new understandings of these psychological stresses.  Considering the depth and breadth of our suffering, and in comparison to the complexity of medical science, the new understandings are stunningly simple.

Understanding the Challenges of the Mind

A mere handful of conditions make up the majority of our mental and emotional suffering.  This group of disorders is like a 'template' imprinted in the human organism.  It is extremely simple, when compared to the thousands of forms of physical illness.  This handful of conditions consists of: depression, substance-related disorders (alcoholism and drug addiction) and the anxiety disorders (panic disorder, agoraphobia, social phobia, specific phobia, generalized anxiety disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder).  These disorders affect approximately 25% of the population in a one-year period and approximately 40% at some time during their lives (Kessler et al. National Comorbidity Survey. 1994.)

These conditions all have a lot in common.  After onset, they have a self-perpetuating quality.  Even when underlying causes are identified and addressed, the conditions tend to continue.  Without treatment, they tend to be chronic, waxing and waning over a lifetime.


Diagnosis is key because these all of these conditions are treatable and many are curable.  Correct diagnosis can connect the sufferer with the best resources for recovery and healing.  

Compared to the physical diseases, these conditions are easy to diagnose.  One needs neither the sophisticated technology of medical science nor the decade of intensive training of the medical doctor.  Often, these conditions can be meaningfully diagnosed in a few minutes, with little or no training.  (For self-diagnosis of anxiety disorders and depression, see

Being able to name one’s condition is essential – not to confer either stigma or status, but to recognize that it is a part of the human experience.  Naming the condition can help us make sense out of the experience, and can connect us to understanding, insight, healing and transformation.


The technology of treatment is quite simple when compared to the technology of medical science.  A single helping professional can learn to treat the majority of these conditions, as contrasted with the sub-sub-specialties of medicine.  In fact, in dramatic contrast to the physical illnesses, the individual sufferer can often achieve success without a professional.  

Prevention and Early Intervention

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, prevention and early intervention can minimize the suffering caused by these conditions.  By learning about these conditions, we can begin to learn how to best protect our children.  Then, if our child should be affected by one of them, we will know how to identify the condition, find the right treatment, and help our child to transform it from a challenge to an opportunity.  


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