“Life is not a problem to be solved, but a reality to be experienced.” Soren Kierkegaard – Mindfulness
Which problems are worth solving?
We are often told to be mindful of each other, our surroundings and ourselves. Implicit in this concept of mindfulness is the imperative to accept life as it is and try to the best of our abilities to enjoy our experiences and not spend time trying to fix things. The other way of seeing life is to think of our limited time on earth as an opportunity to solve problems. It’s not just about experience; it’s about getting stuff done. It’s a challenge to balance these two competing worldviews.
Join Steve and Dan Fouts – founders of Teach Different and twin brothers with over 50 years of teaching experience – along with guest Tawana Akins, high school Assistant Principal for the Miami Dade County Public School System, for a compelling conversation about interdependence, enriched by the Teach Different Method. Whether you are a teacher, school leader, or simply someone interested in experiencing the joy and fulfillment of challenging kids with big ideas, join our worldwide Community of Practice FREE for 30 days. Membership includes access to our robust library of resources, conversation plans, and lively discussions among teachers and faculty.
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Dan Fouts 00:01
Hello, Steve and Dan Fouts here from Teach Different. We’re veteran teachers from the United States bringing educators together from around the world to learn a simple conversation method, which we model on this podcast for you. If you’re a teacher, administrator, homeschooler, or parent who wants to use the power of conversations to build stronger relationships and fight polarization, stay tuned to hear the impact our method can have on your discussions. Then, join our community of educators at teachdifferent.com for additional resources, and to participate in lively conversations among teachers and faculty, free for 30 days.
Dan Fouts 00:43
Welcome, everybody to the Teach Different podcast this week. Our quote this week is from Soren Kierkegaard, a Danish philosopher who has a really interesting thing to say about mindfulness that we’ll get to in a minute. We have a guest tonight, a high school assistant principal from Florida, who will be introducing herself very soon. For those listeners unfamiliar with our protocol, we’re going to start with a quote to get us thinking about something interesting, then we’ll look at the claim of the quote. What does the quote mean? How would you interpret it in your own words? What personal examples or stories could you tell from your own life that supports that claim? Then we push against the claim. This is the critical thinking piece. Let’s disagree with Soren Kierkegaard. What’s another way of looking at the world that is equally reasonable, equally true and equally interesting? This is informal, and it’s fun. We’re going to have a great time. At the end, we’ll share any questions that sprung up organically in the conversation and then we’ll say our goodbyes. So, that’s it. I’m going to read the quote twice and then our guest, Tawana Akins, is going to weigh in on it. “Life is not a problem to be solved, but a reality to be experienced.” “Life is not a problem to be solved, but a reality to be experienced.” Tawana, welcome to the Teach Different podcast. It’s great to have you here.
Tawana Akins 02:29
Thank you for having me. So, to weigh in on this quote.
Dan Fouts 02:34
Give a little background first, if you would. That would be great.
Tawana Akins 02:37
My name is Tawana Aikns, I have 19 years teaching experience in the Miami Dade County Public School System. I’ve been a community activist since I was in middle school. So, I’m going to keep it going for my teenage parent, now adult child, that I have. I’m here, and I’m happy to be here. Thank you all for having me.
Steve Fouts 03:00
Tawana Akins 03:01 – Claim
Thank you. “Life is not a problem to be solved, but a reality to be experienced.” We can just take a look at every day of our life. There will be problems. There will be things that you have to solve every day. I know that is the sad reality, because most times we don’t want to solve our problems, we want to let them marinate and sit there not getting any better. A reality to be experienced. Our problems are real, and we must experience them, but we must also solve them. So that was my take on this quote, “Life is not a problem to be solved, but a reality to be experienced.” I have my counterclaim, but I’m going to save that for later. That was my take on the quote.
Steve Fouts 03:54
Okay. Let me ask this. Here’s my middle school student question. If what’s being said is not a problem to be solved, but a reality to be experienced, then what does it mean to experience reality, and how is that different from thinking of life as a problem? I’m trying to get a sense of what he’s trying to say. What is the advice he’s giving if he were talking to a 12 year old? He said, “Steve, you know, life is not a problem to be solved, but it’s a reality to be experienced.” How is he asking me to act? How am I supposed to take that? What do I do with that?
Tawana Akins 04:55
You simply experience life. It’s what you do in your daily life. For a 12 year old, you can remind them that life is not the reality shows that you see on TV. This is real life with struggles, pain, and consequences, where people are going to treat you bad. There are things that you’re not going to like. That’s life. That’s what life is about. It’s not about the reality shows where everything is just peaches and cream, and everybody gets along. They fight and then get back together. That’s not the life of a 12 year old nowadays.
Steve Fouts 05:31
So basically, I have to kind of accept the fact that life is hard and don’t run from it? You know what I mean?
Tawana Akins 05:44
It’s that you have to accept the fact that life is hard, don’t run from it. I was just recently working at a middle school and I saw how the students struggle with their everyday problems. It’s a great thing that they have mental health professionals right at your fingertips in Miami Dade County public schools, because they’re going through so much in middle school. They’re trying to commit suicide. They’re involved in crimes already in the juvenile justice system. Those are the realities that they face every day. That’s what’s really happening in life. It’s my job to help them to overcome and become a better person.
Dan Fouts 06:35
That’s really good. You’re providing some great insights on this Tawana. This one is deep. It’s really deep. He uses simple words, “life is not a problem to me solved, but a reality to be experienced.” I think he’s saying to stop looking at life as it’s happening. You have to do this and then solve this. Don’t think of it in these chunks or here’s a problem, do this. It’s solved, now move on. But, you have to experience it as a whole. There’s good and bad in every day and that’s just a reality. Don’t get obsessed with solving all the problems, just try to survive or try to be happy in the midst of I don’t know, I’m trying this one.
Tawana Akins 07:36
Don’t give up at the end. Don’t give up.
Dan Fouts 07:38
Don’t give up. Don’t give up. Just try to work through it. We were struggling with the theme earlier. Maybe mindfulness could be a hidden theme here. Maybe being mindful is the way to run life. Don’t sit around and stress about problems.
Tawana Akins 08:05
Yes, being mindful of the problem and doing something about it. We taught mindfulness techniques at our school for our middle school students, and I have adapted some of those techniques to my everyday life. When you’re going through something and it’s just so overwhelming, the lady told me to put up five fingers and just trace them. Trace them and watch how you calm down. That is one of the techniques that I use as an administrator. You’re going to go through so much on a daily basis, but you have to know that you can cope. What is your coping strategy to make it through life, because life is an experience.
Steve Fouts 08:50
Yeah. I find myself trying to come to the aid of somebody who likes to solve problems. Maybe they’re done experiencing it, and now they need some answers. They need a road that isn’t so choppy. But, I feel like I’m moving us into the counterclaim. I don’t want to…
Dan Fouts 09:14
Yeah, let Tawana go to the counterclaim.
Steve Fouts 09:16
I don’t want to move there too quickly, but we can. See Tawana, the beautiful thing about this protocol is that sometimes when you introduce it to the kids, that counterclaim is firing up within 30 seconds. You’re going to get a kid who knows the drill, and he’s going to be like, No, I disagree with this already. That is actually okay. You start off a little balanced. So let’s do that.
Steve Fouts 09:39
What is the counterclaim?
Tawana Akins 09:39
Yeah. You’re asking me that?
Steve Fouts 09:43
I’ll ask you or Dan. Dan, if you want to step up. We don’t have to put all the pressure on Tawana.
Dan Fouts 09:49
Our guests have the priority.
Steve Fouts 09:51
Tawana Akins 09:54 – Counterclaim
I’ll go with the counterclaim, but once again, I like what you said about mindfulness. It’s all in a thought process. I’m going to put on my middle school hat like you did to see your life is not a problem to be solved, but a reality to be experienced coming from a high poverty stricken area. I’m walking by glass and drug needles, and all this debris. I’m walking by smells of urination and everything that no one else could imagine in the neighborhood where I live. I’m walking by people who are trying to pull me into their cars. I’m walking by all kinds of prostitution, drug use, killings, and everything like that. So, to come to me and say, life is not a problem to be solved, but a reality to be experienced, your reality is going to be different from my reality. If I’m in a high poverty, high crime neighborhood, you cannot come to me and say, life is a reality to be experienced. It’s a problem, and the problem needs to be solved. As a middle school student, I should not be worried about solving problems of this caliber already in life.
Steve Fouts 11:28
Great stuff. You know you have a good one, when you just convinced yourself.
Tawana Akins 11:34
Dan Fouts 11:34
It’s hard to follow that.
Steve Fouts 11:42
It’s true, though. If reality is bad, then enough of reality. You can sit there and not try to solve anything and just think that it’s going to be like this, and you’re just going to try to get used to it. Then, it just never changes, and all of a sudden your life is not happy. You’re not getting where you want to get. You’re stuck in the mud, and you’re around a bunch of people who aren’t looking to get out of the situation, either. Lo and behold, if you try to get out, they might even try to grab you and bring you back in. I mean, it’s very likely.
Tawana Akins 12:28
Yes, exactly. Yes. I neglected to mention the gang activity. That’s a problem. You’re trying to get out and improve your life, and you are dealt with. This is the truth. You chose that path, and now you’re trying to get out and change your life and become a better person, but it can’t happen, because you’ve already sold yourself to the gang. Now, they’re going to get rid of you, because they don’t care about bloodshed.
Steve Fouts 12:32
Dan Fouts 13:07
Yeah. To go with the counterclaim, it’s important to think of life having problems, because it motivates you to work and do things to make the world better. When you work on those things, and you see evidence that things are getting better, well, then there’s measurable progress. What’s wrong with that? That’s really, really important. It helps a lot of people find meaning in their life. Think of the problems we solve in education as teachers and administrators every day. We have to deal with certain problems, and we try to come to resolutions of those problems, whether it be students coming late to school, or students skipping school, from an administrative perspective, or students not learning. If you think of that as a problem, you want to solve it. You don’t just want to bathe in the reality of it. Let’s be mindful that everybody’s not learning. So, problems motivate us in a unique way. I think that’s a counterclaim to this that runs against it.
Steve Fouts 14:30
Before we just preach to each other, preach to the choir. I think that if you think of life as a problem all the time, then you can miss your moment. If you’re always talking about how things should be before you’re able to do this, or before you can do this, or believe this… You can look too far ahead as well, and get too mired in trying to correct something when you really should be going with the flow a little bit. I’m trying to balance this back to the claim. I didn’t want to break our momentum. I have an idea for a curriculum connection.
Tawana Akins 15:23
Steve Fouts 15:23
Let me share this. Tawana, we do this every once in a while. We teach this protocol to teachers, so we’re always encouraging them to think about conversations as tools to make the content that they’re teaching more interesting. Strategically get a really good conversation going for 15 to 20 minutes before a lesson or before a unit to sum something up. Listen to this one. What about throwing up this question at the beginning of a Civil Rights unit or at the end of one? How would Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. address “life is not a problem to be solved, but a reality to be experienced?” How would he address that? That’s my open question.
Tawana Akins 16:17
He knew the struggle. Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King knew the struggle. He knew the problems. He had ways to solve the problems, and he had a majority of people believing his techniques could solve the problem with the use of nonviolent measures. So, he knew it was a problem. He knew the problem had to be solved. He knew that was our current reality, but he was trying to do something about it.
Tawana Akins 16:26
He would look at injustice, and say, there’s a reality, but it’s not one I’m just going to experience blindly my entire life. I see that as a problem. I’m going to start acting in a way to get rid of that problem. That’s what I’m going to do with my energy.
Tawana Akins 17:22
Steve Fouts 17:24
Dan, what do you think?
Dan Fouts 17:27
Yeah, I think that’s probably how he would view this. I was also thinking about the women’s rights movement. You could do this before a women’s rights movement unit. Any actual…
Tawana Akins 17:42
Roe vs Wade.
Dan Fouts 17:43
Right. You could place this quote and this conversation before you study any reform movement, and have a rich discussion about whether this person is solving a problem, or is accepting the world the way it is. I’m using different language, but that’s kind of what we’re saying. Right? Interesting.
Steve Fouts 18:16
It’d be interesting to see how the kids would come up with their own testaments, and experiences as well. Give them a prompt like, have you ever had a group of friends who were arguing, and you felt like there was a problem you needed to help solve? How do you approach your relationships with your friends? Are you trying to get people out of trouble? I’m just trying to think of what they would say with things like that. Do you have an idea Tawana?
Tawana Akins 18:54
The idea that came to mind when you said that was restorative justice. I don’t know if you are familiar with restorative justice.
Steve Fouts 19:00
Of course. We did it all the time.
Tawana Akins 19:02
That’s one way we were able to solve problems. Your friend is involved, but you have to be fair. You have to be impartial to the situation, and we have to come up with solutions together. That’s one way we were able to get friends to a sit down. Sometimes friends, just like siblings, have issues that need to be solved. We come to the table and we agree on things. We have a high case of being able to solve the problems involved because of the strategy of restorative justice.
Dan Fouts 19:46
Yeah, that’s a great example. I would also just ask the general question to the kids. What are some problems you want solved right now in the school, in this classroom?
Steve Fouts 19:58
Be careful with that one.
Dan Fouts 20:00
Get them thinking about…
Tawana Akins 20:01
They’re going to tell you. (laughing)
Dan Fouts 20:03
Tawana Akins 20:04
Let’s start with you. How about we get rid of the teacher?
Dan Fouts 20:09
Then, you have a problem.
Steve Fouts 20:13
They’re going to love this conversation.
Dan Fouts 20:14
Get them to think about specific problems that they see in their community, in their school, or with their friends. I think everybody could come up with one or two of those. That would be a good springboard to get this going.
Steve Fouts 20:31
Then, you could go to the other kids, of course, and just say, has anybody here given up? You don’t want to address all the issues in society, in this classroom, school, or community. You don’t want to invest the time and energy because you don’t feel like it’s going to make a change. Bring that one out, too, because you’re going to have the chilled out students who don’t worry about this stuff. Get them to at least do a testament to themselves and explain why that is, because they’re going to hear other voices who haven’t given up in the same way.
Tawana Akins 21:14
Yes, exactly. I like the focus groups.
Dan Fouts 21:18
I’m going back to my philosophy days, Tawana. I studied Soren Kierkegaard. He was one of the first existentialist philosophers who believed that our existence, what we experience on an everyday basis, is where the true meaning of our lives are. I think that’s kind of what he’s getting at here with the mindfulness thing. He doesn’t think of it as a problem to be solved, he thinks of it more as just something to endure. A really interesting quote, though.
Tawana Akins 21:55
Steve Fouts 21:56
(singing) Don’t worry, be happy. I don’t have a question. Nothing has come up for me. Tawana, did you have a question that came out of this or one you think is a good sum up of the quote or anything?
Tawana Akins 22:15
I don’t have a question at the moment. I love the conversation. I love the forward thinking that came out of this, because now I’m thinking of how I can utilize this quote at the beginning of the school year, with not only the students, but with the adults as well.
Steve Fouts 22:34
I was going to ask you if you’re an assistant principal that is tasked with working with the teachers on PD and things like that.
Tawana Akins 22:45
Steve Fouts 22:48
They need their voices heard, Tawana, just as much as kids. I don’t have to tell you that.
Tawana Akins 22:54
Steve Fouts 22:55
And they have all kinds of experiences and opinions, right?
Tawana Akins 23:02
Yes, they do. Yes.
Steve Fouts 23:06
I don’t have a question.
Dan Fouts 23:09
How can we experience life?
Steve Fouts 23:11
I actually have one.
Dan Fouts 23:13 – Essential Question
How can we experience life and solve problems at the same time?
Steve Fouts 23:23
Okay, how can we experience life and solve problems at the same time?
Dan Fouts 23:27
How can we be mindful of our existence, but also see life as a problem to solve? How can we have our cake and eat it too? That’s what’s coming to my mind. How can we do both of these things in a way that brings happiness to us?
Tawana Akins 23:45
It starts in the mind. For me, it goes right back to your mind. How can I have a balance because of course, I have problems every single day. I’m always asked, why are you always smiling? Why are you always happy? I have learned that my problems will be there, and I’m solving my problems at the same time that I’m experiencing life. Any day your life may be cut short. When we first started this podcast tonight, I told you about the 17 year old who did not know that was going to be her last night. She drove somewhere to see her boyfriend. You have to learn a balance. The things I can control, control them, and the things I need to work on, work on them. If I want my credit score to be 700 and I’m still going more and more in debt, then I have to do something about it. You have to ask yourself, what am I going to do about it to solve my problem? You know what to do, but then you have to put it into action. Life is supposed to be lived. I have a great balance of life. I do a lot of community work, spend time with my family, and I spend time with me. I make it my joy. My last vacation was in Arizona. I went by myself. I’m going to travel the world with people or without people. First you have to love yourself. Once you love yourself, once you can spend time with yourself and be comfortable with yourself, you can spend time with anybody.
Steve Fouts 25:27
Tawana Akins 25:29
Steve Fouts 25:30
I love the control theme, too. Know what you can control, and then hopefully let go of the things that are not in your control, because that’s not going to help. It made me think of a question that I’m going to try out. I’m going to get this really good here.
Dan Fouts 25:50
I could insert one.
Steve Fouts 25:52
You’re going to distract me?
Dan Fouts 25:53
Yes. I have half your brain. We’re twins. How do I know?
Tawana Akins 25:58
Oh, you all are twins?
Steve Fouts 25:59
Dan Fouts 26:00
Oh, yeah, yeah.
Tawana Akins 26:02
Dan Fouts 26:04
How do I know what in life I have control over?
Tawana Akins 26:07
If you can solve it, you have control over it. If it doesn’t defeat you, you have control over it. As soon as someone does something to defeat you, you have no control over it. If you’re still arguing with your spouse, then that person has control. If it can cause you to get out of your element, then you don’t usually have control of it.
Steve Fouts 26:34
Okay, here it is.
Tawana Akins 26:36
Steve Fouts 26:37 – Essential Question
No, the question. This is the question. Which problems are worth solving?
Tawana Akins 26:44
That’s a great question.
Steve Fouts 26:45
Keep it simple. Then, you can do the control thing with that. Which problems are worth solving? The ones that you can control. That’s an answer, right?
Tawana Akins 26:57
No, then it’s going to make it seem like life is so easy and peachy. What about the problems that need to be solved? Are they just going to linger over your head? You need that operation, but you don’t want to get that operation because you’re afraid. Do you understand what I’m saying? It’s still a problem, so you need to solve it.
Steve Fouts 27:19
You’re right. Well, you have to set a criteria for this question. That’s why I think it’s a good one. You’re right, it doesn’t have a simple answer. Which problems are worth solving? Dan, write that down.
Dan Fouts 27:35
I will do that.
Steve Fouts 27:36
I love it.
Dan Fouts 27:40
Well, that’s great. This conversation really unfolded nicely. I think we did a nice job with the claim and the counterclaim. We got some really interesting themes out there – mindfulness, problem solving, control. Notice how it evolved into this idea of what we can control and what we can’t control? This is what I love about these conversations. You start here, and then you end at a different place sometimes, and that’s okay. That’s the beauty and majesty of having people in a setting socially who talk and think about the same things. The conversation develops a life of its own with a little bit of a structure, which is what the Teach Different protocol gives. There’s an umbrella over it. It’s not just everywhere. It’s contained.
Steve Fouts 28:38
That’s the balance.
Dan Fouts 28:40
That’s so important. You have to have creativity within structure.
Tawana Akins 28:44
Dan Fouts 28:45
Well, Tawana, thank you so much for being our guest. You were a great contributor. Your insights and wisdom are great. We’re looking forward to when this is published, and we encourage you to share it with everyone you know. There will be listeners all over the world who will hear us and hopefully take something valuable from this experience. To the extent that you’ve contributed to this, we really appreciate it. Thank you so much.
Tawana Akins 29:14
No problem. Thank you all for having me.
Steve Fouts 29:16
Thank you. Thank you.
Dan Fouts 29:18
Well, thanks, everybody. We hope you’re walking away feeling energized by some great ideas, and have a sense of confidence that you too can master the art and science of conversations to make a lasting impact. We at Teach Different are dedicated to supporting you along that journey. Please visit teachdifferent.com to join the community of educators for additional resources and engaging discussion among fellow teachers and administrators, free for 30 days. We’ll see you there and next time on the teach different podcasts. Take care.