The problem is seldom the problem.
- The troubled teen-ager is likely acting out some dysfunction in the home.
- The disgruntled employee probably has unresolved intrapersonal issues. Maybe a root of bitterness towards a family member.
- The driver who breaks out in a tirade against a fellow motorist may be drowning in a marriage gone upside down.
- The man who constantly complains about his pastor may be plagued with unconscious guilt. Perhaps he has a pornography problem.
I don’t want to be judgmental nor dismissive. Nor do I want to oversimplify complex issues. Problems are rarely so simple as: “She’s just lazy. He’s got an authority problem. My neighbor is a narcissist.”
Problems, more often, are combinations of this thing and that thing and a hundred other things.
Still, the presenting problem is seldom the real problem. There is often something much deeper at work driving our behaviors. Perhaps a personal illustration will help clarify what I mean.
There is a beautiful elderly woman I’ve known for years. She’s always been pleasant to be around, but Covid-19 has taken its toll on her. There is a side to her that I didn’t know existed. Talking with her is like walking on ice these days. One can’t be too careful. She is very disenchanted with politicians, public policy, and most evangelical Christians. Say the wrong thing, and she just might snap.
Where is all this pent-up anger coming from? The former “stupid” President? People not wearing masks and abiding by CDC health protocols? The incompetence of the government to distribute the vaccine equitably and in a timely, efficient way? Right wing conservatives behaving like “imbeciles” who threaten to kill public officials?
Of course, these can all be contributing factors (among many other things). The inconsideration and wrongdoing of people and failure of systems can (and do) upset the best of us. And should! Where there is injustice and foul play, such must be addressed. But let’s not lose sight of the real problem.
Anger is a secondary emotion. In the case of my dear friend, I think underneath all her fury is fear.
She’s afraid that the country she has loved will never be the same. Certain stores, places of business, and churches will never reopen. Technology will pass her by. She won’t have enough money. She will lose more friends and family. Be alone. Get sick.
And I don’t think she’s alone.
We have a whole culture, by and large, that is afraid . . . ultimately of death.
Anthropologist Ernest Becker argued in his Pulitzer Prize-winning book, The Denial of Death, “The idea of death, the fear of it, haunts the human animal like nothing else; it is a mainspring of human activity—designed largely to avoid the fatality of death, to overcome it by denying in some way that it is the final destiny of man.” Becker went on to write, man’s “deepest need is to be free of the anxiety of death and annihilation.”
Our world is very polarized. Families, churches, and communities are rife with division. People are acting irrational. The air is truly toxic. What’s going on?
This pandemic has shaken us all up. Pre-Covid, we were prancing about as if we were immortal. All our modern-day distractions and diversions kept us from having to deal with the bigger questions of existence. Life is so much easier when lived on the surface. Becker quipped that man copes with his primal fear of death by “drinking and drugging himself out of awareness, or he spends his time shopping, which is the same thing.”
Whatever it takes to avoid capital “R” reality.
But then 2020 came along forcing us to face our vulnerabilities and mortality. That life is fragile and can be lost suddenly. And then what? The sand pit? Oblivion?
Or is there something more?
The Christian tradition offers a real, substantial, life-giving hope. A hope that serves as an anchor for the soul. One that will not disappoint. One that will fortify a person with courage and strength. A hope found in a person.
The writer of Hebrews captures this truth gloriously: “Since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might destroy him who holds the power of death—that is, the devil—and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death” (2:14-15).
So remember, behind much of the name-calling , mud-slinging, and strife we witness in this world, there is something much deeper at work—something below the water line—that is causing people to act in mean (and oftentimes out-of-character) ways. Fear. Don’t mistake the problem for THE PROBLEM.
And remember, too, that there is a remedy for this fear.
It is not an injection. It is a relationship. As John the Apostle reminds us, “Perfect Love casts out fear” (1 Jn. 4:18).
“This is how much God loved the world: He gave his Son, his one and
only Son. And this is why: so that no one need be destroyed;
by believing in him, anyone can have a whole and lasting life.”
(John 3:16, Msg)
Once again, Jeff, you’ve written an excellent and insightful essay that is so pertinent! I really appreciate how you can make your case in such a relatively short piece. There is no fat on your words. May God richly bless you with every spiritual blessing in Christ!