I Have a Problem

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.” –Theodore Roosevelt

The quote above by Teddy Roosevelt has been one of my favorite quotes for over a decade. It is a quote that my parents framed for me when I graduated from high school and it hung in my office for years. While Roosevelt’s words are inspiring and a great reminder for those in leadership roles, the reality is that our culture doesn’t believe the first line is true anymore. The critic does count in our world today; many times, the critic gets more credit and is esteemed higher honor than the person who is actually contributing or creating. Most of us have subconsciously picked up on this fact. We know, deep down, that it is easier to tell the world what you are against rather than what you are for. Because it’s easier and more expedient to play the role of the critic, many people use this as a way to get the upper hand over others. We’ve found ourselves suddenly playing a new game, and the rules to this game are: the first person that can find a reason to be offended wins!

I cannot tell you how often I see this play out in relationships around me. All it takes to garner sympathy from the masses in our world is to say, “I have a problem with [fill in the blank].” People know that if you want to drive up traffic on your blog or get a ton of “retweets,” the quickest way is to call out someone well-known—someone that happens to be in the arena—by saying you have a problem with them.[1] If you want sympathy from others in your marriage, make sure you tell everyone why you have a problem with your spouse. Here’s something that needs to be said: the vast majority of times I’ve seen this approach used, it’s nothing more than a mechanism to transfer our problems onto someone else. It’s really just a way to avoiding looking in the mirror and facing the issues churning on the inside. And, by the way, we use this technique often because we know it will work.

I think one reason this device is so “effective” is because we live in a blame culture. When something goes wrong, we search quickly for someone to blame.[2] In his book Adam’s Return, Richard Rohr talks about how quickly we “scapegoat” others in order to place Scapegoatblame somewhere, anywhere, else. Rohr uncovers what’s going on behind our attempts to scapegoat others by saying, “None of [our scapegoats] are actually the problem or your problem; it is just that you need them to serve a purpose. Our negativity and fear must have a place to nest.”[3] This explains, in part, why it’s much easier to constantly focus on what you are against rather than what you are for. We desperately want to avoid having to face our own issues, so we place them on others in order to keep from having to change ourselves.

One of the major lessons I’ve learned from my counselor over the last year has been this: it is essential in conflict to identify who “owns” the problem. What this means is if someone has a problem with me because of something I said, something I didn’t say, or the color of shirt I was wearing, it’s essential to identify whose problem that is. Some people would quickly react and say, “You should apologize for wearing that blue shirt. Didn’t you know their brother died while wearing a blue shirt?!” What is being implicitly stated is that it is my fault they are upset, so I need to apologize for it. They are saying I need to own the problem. Let me call this for what it is: it’s nothing more than a tactical advantage people use every day to gain control over others. If we can get someone to apologize because we have demanded it, we are in the driver’s seat and collect sympathy as “the offended one.”

What I’m coming to realize, with the help of my counselor, is that this is wrong. My response to this in the past has also been wrong. I’m learning more and more that I actually am a people-pleaser. I want people to like me. Just like you, I want people to respect me. And because I am a people-pleaser, I have the tendency to take their problems on as my own. This has been a destructive habit of mine that has led to me being on the brink of burnout at times. While I absolutely should own up to my failures and mistakes when I do mess up, I’m working hard on not apologizing for things outside of my control. Now, rather than rushing around trying to pick up the pieces for everyone who has a problem with me, I’m learning more and more to lean on grace and recognize that I am going to let people down. Again: this is not an excuse to intentionally offend others and make it out to be their issue. This is simply the recognition of the fact that I am going to unintentionally upset people, and that is ultimately their problem. And when people say, “I have a problem with what you did,” I’m going to acknowledge the truth of that statement. You have a problem; I hope you can find resolution with your issue.


[1] Beth Moore wrote an excellent blog about this phenomenon after Rick Warren’s son passed away. She called people who do this “platform hunters”; these are people who need to use someone else’s platform to get attention for themselves.
[2] Side Note: What really baffles our culture is when there’s no one we can blame for a tragedy. It was fascinating to watch the conversations in the aftermath of the Newtown shootings and the Boston bombings versus the response after the Oklahoma tornadoes. All of our anger and rage in the first two was channeled towards gun owners, the perpetrators, radicalized religion, and even the authorities that missed warning signs. In the Oklahoma tornado, it was fascinating to see our desire to still place blame on someone or something, yet having no real place to go with our blame. Articles about religion, the lack of storm shelters in schools, the slow development of early warning systems for tornadoes, and even the idea that global warming caused this severe weather were the best we could muster up. We simply had nowhere credible to turn with our “I-have-a-problem” speeches.
[3] Richard Rohr, Adam’s Return, Pg. 41

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