When I was pastor, I spent a lot of time, especially when I was new at it, dealing with the symptoms of a problem rather than the problem itself.
Often what was manifested or presented was not really the issue that needed addressing the most. The real problem lay out of sight and beyond consciousness.
An inexperienced pastor might call a crying staff person — who is ripping his head off for no apparent reason at a staff meeting — into his office and confront him for inappropriate behavior in the work place.
In the same situation, an experienced pastor might call that same person into his office and ask how things are going at home, only to find out that the staff person’s spouse is about to file for divorce.
Instead of dealing with the misplaced anger, an experienced pastor would go directly to the problem behind the problem.
When I was new at pastoring, I remember being in regular conflict with a woman religious on the staff. No matter what I did, she resented it and let me know through regular passive aggressive behavior that she wanted nothing to do with me. I went for counseling. I thought that if I could identify my character defects and correct them, I would be able to win her over, we would be able to work together and we would all live happily ever after.
What I did not know was that there was a problem behind the problem that could not be fixed no matter how much counseling I got, because the problem was not really about me. I came to find out that she had been kicked out of the convent by an awful priest chaplain when she was a novice. In her eyes, every priest since, including me, was that awful priest.
He was the problem, not me, and I came to realize that I could not fix our problem even if I became perfect. Our problems were only symptoms of the real problem.
Many children of aging parents fail to recognize signs of dementia — the real problem behind the situation when a quiet, loving parent begins to swear when upset or insult family and friends for no obvious reason. The parent they care for may not know how to dress or act appropriately in certain situations. Many of them lose their inhibitions, resulting in inappropriate sexual behavior. Dementia is the real problem behind their problems.
I don’t always understand why I do the things I do, much less understand why other people do the things they do, but I do know that the best way to approach many of these situations is to try to find out the problem behind the problems, rather than dealing with its symptoms. We have to care enough to be patient, take our time and seek insight — something that we are not always willing or able to do for ourselves or each other.
Father J. Ronald Knott