Think first about other people’s problems

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Focusing on our own problems can lead to fear, doubt and paralysis

In November, as the liturgical year draws to a close, the church draws our attention to the last things, providing a great opportunity to consider what matters most. On the 33rd Sunday of Ordinary Time, we will hear the parable of the talents and I will be reminded of one of my first jobs.

The first job I did for the state of Washington was writing “fiscal notes,” estimations of how much local governments in the state would have to spend to implement proposed state legislation. I worked with a group of about a half dozen other interns to review proposed legislation and write a detailed report that projected just how much it would cost cities throughout the state to comply with the law if it passed. We had up to three days to write each note.

The most experienced of our group was Mike. He had done the job before and knew it well. Like the first servant in the parable of the talents who does what his master tells him right away, Mike was very productive. He always turned in his fiscal notes a little early, and his financial analysis was reliably accurate.

Another member of our group was very different. He was much more like the last, unworthy servant in the parable, turning many of his notes in late. Whenever he got an assignment, this intern would complain about how little time he had to do a note and how hard it was to do the financial analysis. He spent plenty of time worrying about his work, but never seemed to get much done.

I never thought the problem with the unproductive intern was a lack of intelligence. It was more that, like the last servant in the parable, he was more worried about self-preservation than service. He thought so hard about his problem that he didn’t see that the solution demanded thinking about things from someone else’s point of view. His relentless focus on his problem left him paralyzed with doubt and fear.

Mike, on the other hand, thought first about the concerns of the people he was serving. What did the legislation require? How would it change the law? What would city administrators need to do to implement the new law? He had developed relationships with city administrators he could consult and knew enough about their work that he could intelligently discuss the proposed changes. I found him a great person to talk to if I ever needed advice.

Mike’s orientation toward solving other people’s problems make him like that first servant in the parable of the talents. That servant thought first about how to serve his master, went about his work with confidence and shared in his master’s joy. In contrast, the last servant thought only about his problem: a master he feared and, consequently, probably disliked.

It can be very easy to look at the people we serve as problems to be feared or disliked. We can complain about our boss’ assignments. We can be frustrated if our spouse doesn’t seem to appreciate what we do. We can get exasperated when our 2-year-old dumps out the basket of toys we just picked up or our 14-year-old rolls her eyes at us for the fifth time today. All these things are natural, but unproductive. They orient us toward an excessive focus on our problems, which can lead us toward fear and doubt.

It’s important to remember what our Lord calls us to do: provide good work in exchange for the wage we receive, care for our spouse, and parent with prudence and patience. At the same time, it can be even more important to pay attention to how we do it. By thinking less of ourselves and focusing on addressing the problems of the people God has placed in our care, our anxieties will dissipate and, ultimately, we will share in our master’s joy.

Northwest Catholic - November 2017

Deacon Eric Paige

Deacon Eric Paige is the Archdiocese of Seattle's executive director for evangelization, formation and discipleship. Contact him at eric.paige@seattlearch.org.