I read an essay by a favorite writer this week (Joseph Epstein) in which he delved into words and their meanings. Three words, in particular. It was one of those things I read, and read again, and thought about, and kept thinking about.
The words? Pretty simple. Issue. Question. Problem. We use them all pretty freely. Especially “issue.” Wow, do we love that word. Everybody has an issue with something. It’s a fairly safe word. There’s just not a whole lot of accountability there. You can’t argue with the statement, “I have issues with…” Whatever. Big hairy spiders. Fried food. Thunderstorms. Inconsiderate neighbors who party in their pool at all hours like they are the only people on the planet.
It is possible that we have somewhat overused the word “issue” in our modern vernacular. And the danger in doing that is when a word can be such a gigantic blue tarp covering all manner of situations and conditions, it can lose its original intended use and meaning. As Epstein says, “A happy vagueness resides in the loose use of the word issue.”
What’s the difference between an issue, a question, and a problem? Aren’t those words reasonably interchangeable? Can’t we have, say, hair issues, hair questions, and hair problems?
Of course! But I love how Epstein, while working as senior editor at Encyclopaedia Brittanica, learned the distinctions between those three words from HIS chief, Mortimer Adler: “A problem calls for a solution, a question for an answer, and an issue is something in the flux of controversy.”
How much more clear does it get? It seems like it’s so easy to use the word “issue” to cover a host of subjects precisely because it requires no action. It’s fairly innocuous. It doesn’t demand an answer or a solution. It just IS.
So if, when we assume, we make asses out of you and me (c’mon, that’s how teachers taught people to spell ‘assume’ when I was in school), what do issues make? Isses? Out of you and…well…us? It’s not very elegant. But maybe issues just make IS-es that hover around wringing their little soft hands, muttering quietly, getting underfoot, and interfering with progress. We can’t resolve them. We can’t get around them. We can’t dismiss them. What do we do with them?
When my daughters were little, they adored the book Going on a Bear Hunt by Michael Rosen and Helen Oxenbury. Relished it. Asked for it nightly. Word to the wise: This. Is. Not. A. Bedtime. Story. Why not? Well, because despite its lovely illustrations and lilting storyline and deceptively small size, it is an action book. It draws you in. The bear hunt demands action. It just does. And the best person I know to read the bear hunt story is my mother’s oldest younger brother Dan, who absolutely nails the cadence and drama of the story and leaves streams of hysterical kids in his wake like a comet, none of whom are remotely ready for bed. But I digress.
When we go on a bear hunt, we encounter all kinds of things. Gates. Mountains. Giant fields of wavy grass. Rivers. Caves. And eventually…the bear itself! Likewise, when we go on an “issue hunt,” we encounter all kinds of things. Mostly giant question marks. The main one being, is this really an issue? Or, based on Epstein’s definitions above, is it a problem that has a solution, or a question that has an answer? And, like the bear hunt, the only way to resolve that question isn’t to waffle around in definitional limbo. (You know you like that phrase. Feel free to use it somewhere. It’s on the house.) You can’t go over, around, under, or beside the issue. You have to face it head on, and see whether it really IS an issue.
Turns out most of the things we call issues these days really are problems and questions masquerading as issues. They can be solved. They can be answered. And we can move on to bigger and better bear hunts.