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Sunsets and Math Problems: Appreciating the Difference


Fighting with the bone!

Imagine that two cavemen sit in the grass on a warm summer day. One is a problem-solver, like us. His skin is broken out and he worries and frowns a lot. Hyper alert, he is often agitated and jumpy. He thinks about the noises outside the cave last night andwhat the rumbling in his stomach means. He walks around, looking for fruit and keeps his eye out for tigers. The other guy sits quietly, counting his breath and feeling the breeze on his face.  He’s easy-going and popular among other cavemen. He doesn’t react to what others say and is accepting of different ideas and personalities.

So what happens when the two hear a lion roar?  The first caveman bolts, searching for a place to hide.  The second starts to run but stops, noticing the sensation of the grass beneath his feet, the flow of his breath and he becomes the lion’s lunch.

The above vignette comes from the book Things Might Go Terribly, Horribly Wrong.  The idea is that many, many, many generations later we are the relatives of the survivors of those treacherous years. We are programmed to be alert to, find and solve any problem that exists. The emotionally sensitive are particularly attuned to all possible upset and tragedy that could occur.

In the caveman years food was scarce and bigger and stronger animals were plentiful. Problem solving and alertness to threats were part of survival. In today’s world, we may overdo it with trying to solve problems.

For this generation, being ready to solve any problem that occurred in the past or might exist in the future is not so adaptive. We can focus on problems to the extent that the rest of the world disappears. Problems can dominate our awareness and then we miss many of the blessings we have.

We may be so focused on problems that we try to solve problems for others who don’t even want our assistance. Or maybe we draw people to us who are problem creators. They bring lots of problems and we roll up our sleeves and start working through them. Though we may complain, we feel needed and purposeful and safe when we are solving their problems.

We may even anticipate possible problems for other people and try to prevent those problems. We think ahead, attempting to avoid possible problems and become rather controlling in our drive for safety. We may even take away the choices of others in the name of problem solving; for example,  “You’re not going to that school in Arizona because you know you get sick every time you get overheated.”  Then we get burned out and think how ungrateful other people are for all the problem solving we do for them.

One suggestion by the authors is to think of an alternative way of looking at your world. Instead of only seeing problems to be fixed, you could learn to appreciate differences and challenges. They suggest considering the differences as similar to those between math problems and sunsets. Some things in your life are like math problems. There is a solution and most often you will figure it out. In some situations maybe the solution is too difficult and you’ll walk away.

Other situations may be more like sunsets. If you meet someone who sees the world very differently than you do, maybe that isn’t a problem to be solved. Maybe that’s more like the sunset, something that you appreciate and look at in wonder and do not attempt to change. Sometimes feeling anxious is really a sunset. There is nothing to change. Maybe you could just notice your anxiety and worry and let it be. Maybe even show some appreciation at how creative anxiety can be at finding something to worry about or how it sometimes seems to show up even when there is nothing to worry about.

Being effective at identifying what needs to be solved and what is best accepted and perhaps even appreciated can lower your suffering. All of us would be grateful for less suffering.



Photo credit:Creative Commons License Tambako The Jaguar via Compfight

Sunsets and Math Problems: Appreciating the Difference

Karyn Hall, PhD

Karyn Hall, Ph.D. is the owner/director of the Dialectical Behavior Therapy Center in Houston, a DBT-Linehan Board of Certification, Certified Clinician, a RO DBT Approved Supervisor and Trainer and owner of, an online educational program. She is a trainer/consultant as well as a therapist and certified coach, author of The Emotionally Sensitive Person, SAVVY, Mindfulness Exercises for DBT Therapists, and co-author of The Power of Validation. Her podcast, The Emotionally Sensitive Person, is available on iTunes.

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APA Reference
Hall, K. (2013). Sunsets and Math Problems: Appreciating the Difference. Psych Central. Retrieved on November 26, 2020, from


Last updated: 19 Jan 2013
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