The Way We See the Problem is the Problem

This is not the next blog I had planned on running and the timing would not necessarily be three days after the most recent posting. I feel a tugging on my heart to post this and post it now.

My eyes were opened back in 1990 on the subject of a paradigm shift, when I read Stephen Covey’s Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. This was a new concept to me. In the book, Covey tells a personal story of his own mini paradigm shift one morning on the New York subway.

“The more aware we are of our basic paradigms, maps, or assumptions, and the extent to which we have been influenced by our experience, the more we can take responsibility for those paradigms, examine them, test them against reality, listen to others and be open to their perceptions, thereby getting a larger picture and a far more objective view.” – Stephen R. Covey

Today my eyes are being opened to the issues we have in this country around intolerance based on our perspective. This is not a blatant, conscious intolerance but a more subtle one created by our paradigms. The fact that it is subtle makes it even more dangerous and damaging. We think we see the problem, but we don’t, at least we don’t see the entirety of the problem, because we keep our filters in place.

I have never considered myself privileged. However, I have come to learn that I don’t control being privileged, our culture bestows that on me. Because I am white, male, professional, and physically fit, I am looked at differently than if I was black, female, awkward, or obese. When I judge a problem entirely through my filters and privileged point of view, built on years of my experiences, then I am not seeing the whole problem.

I feel society at large follows that trend. The older we are, the more experiences we have, which creates thicker filters. I remember the adage that when we are young, we have ‘narrow waists and broad minds’ but when we get older, we have ‘broad waists and narrow minds.’ Looking at the current debate on the murder of George Floyd and the ensuing outcry in my own social media feeds, I see people in their 20’s and early 30’s advocating for a more just society and bridging this country’s racial inequities; while seeing people in the 45+ age group mitigating the current situation and qualifying racial injustice by adding divergent issues into the discussion.

When we combine multiple problems into the same discussion point, we effectively lessen the importance of each issue. Yes, the looting is a problem, especially when it could be from paid protesters or those just taking advantage of the situation. But adding that topic to the conversation lessens the significance of the fact that a black man was murdered by a white police officer because he passed a counterfeit bill. Even more disheartening, it is a way we can feel like we are confronting the first problem without really opening our hearts to it. “Causality” – the riots being a result of the death – does not mean “equality.” All the posts that equate the wrongness of the riots against the murder would be easier to take if those same people had originally posted about the unjust death of a man and then added a note about the riots a week later. To be honest, only after the riots did people and organizations start to condemn the murder.

Perspective is an important thing, if not everything. Especially when we encounter something that is challenging. If the perspective makes us uncomfortable and we struggle to function in that environment, the easiest thing to do is change our perspective to return to a place of comfort. That change can range from ignoring to rationalizing to even challenging the situation because sometimes a strong offense is the best defense.

A technical term for this is “Confirmation Bias.” We see what we want to see to confirm what we already believe. No doubt we have that in today’s politics, race relations, religion, and every other hot topic. The confirmation bias filter leads us to single ‘skewed’ sources of data which further reinforces our bias and predetermines the outcome of our feelings toward a subject. In Simon & Garfunkel’s song, The Boxer, is the lyric “All lies and jest, still a man hears what he wants to hear and disregards the rest.”

Today’s experts want to discuss solutions to the racial inequities, similar solutions presented for decades. Many are nothing more than aspirin and band-aids.  There needs to be a deeper reflection and understanding of the problems. We need to start first with self, with our own paradigms, our character, and our motives. Albert Einstein observed, “The significant problems we face cannot be solved at the same level of thinking we were at when we created them.” Many of us that are privileged have not gone deep enough with our thinking, probably because the deeper we go the more uncomfortable we become. To say we should be “colorblind” is Einstein’s point of staying at the same level of thinking. We discount the perspective of the individuals who have endured generations of oppressive experiences.

There is a noticeably clear moral direction we must take here. Christians need to look at things through the eyes of Jesus. The way He saw the Samaritan, Leper, prostitute, short overweight tax collector, the marginalized. He treated them all as brothers and sisters – all God Privileged. We don’t have the means nor the authority to judge others.

The Casuistry Way is a Jesuit method of moral reasoning forged by St. Ignatius 500 years ago. It means that you don’t approach a problem with a set of principles. Instead, before pursuing any outcome, one needs to see the problem correctly. The Casuistry Way asks us to follow these three steps:

  • Set aside our principles
  • Descend into the particulars
  • Listen closely

all to offer consolation to those who are suffering.

The phrase “descending into the particular” is from St. Thomas Aquinas. Aquinas stressed, the more we descend into detail, the more we realize that principles and deductive reasoning don’t easily function. We will need a lot more, presumably, the virtue of wisdom. Wisdom to fight to give every human being the dignity and resources they deserve. Wisdom to seek the grace of prayer, the grace of empathy, and the grace of just mercy.

“It’s okay to talk to God about your problems, but at some point, you have to flip the script. You need to talk to your problems about God.” Mark Batterson

We can’t change the past, but we have a choice about the future. But that choice requires seeing the problem correctly, without filters, and through the eyes of Jesus.

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