Thursday, March 6, 2014
Why Won't He Listen to Me?
I was sitting outside as the priest opened the church doors this morning, and I walked in with him as he went about turning on the lights. He commented on some of our prior discussions, and thanked me for the recent book I had given him. A very busy priest, he had just read the words I had underlined in the text, and got what I considered the important stuff.
He asked me “What’s new” in my life, and I described my idea for supporting parish family life. “That sounds like a very good idea,” he said. “Keep me informed how that progresses,” and he walked away, continuing his mass setup chores.
But the conversation went on in my mind, as I argued all the reasons for my great idea, and all the wonderful things it might bring about --- No; make that LIKELY would bring about. This was an IMPORTANT idea.
But he didn’t hear my unsaid words. And I couldn’t quiet my mind as it raced along on the topic. He had walked away, but in my mind I thought: “Why won’t he listen to me? He acknowledged this was a good idea, didn’t he?”
But then, sitting there in the quiet of the church, God opened my old mind to another time and another good idea I once had, and the man who HAD listened to me, and thanked me for my idea, and then rushed to implement it. And I recalled how proud that made me --- for a very short while.
I paid for my college education by clerking 8 hours a day on the railroad. My starting job involved walking through the yard and writing down boxcar numbers, and noting their destinations. The rail yard acted as a boxcar sorting point. Trains entered the yard with boxcars destined for cities A through Z, blocked in groups of A through E, F through L, etc. In our yard we put together all the A-to-E cars from various inbound trains into one new outbound train headed toward cities A to E, or other groups of cities. And we added a few on-hand cars destined for A-to-E that we might have picked up from local companies. We did pretty much the same thing for the other cities, and during my shift the newly blocked trains left the yard. It all seemed pretty simple and organized to my bright, teen-aged mind.
And my mind WAS bright --- as everyone (and my school grades) told me. There was a young black man I knew, Art, who worked for the railroad at that time. Smart, he was a crew leader in the yard, driving one of the engines that sorted the rail cars. I liked Art, and he invited me to dinner with his young family a couple of times. I didn’t think it unusual, but it was in those days of Dr. Martin Luther King marches. And so it was a surprise when Art was promoted to be the first black Yardmaster, supervisor of all engine crews on my afternoon work shift. Art and his family were so proud, and I was very happy for him.
I remember Art’s first day on his new job. As he was directing the train destined for cities A-to-E to be formed, I noticed a few local cars for A-to-E and walked into Art’s office. “Hey, here’s a few more,” I said. “Thanks,” Art replied. “I’ll send an engine to get them.” And then I discovered a few more on another track, and then the local industry pickup train came in, and I pointed out a few more. And Art thanked me again, and directed adding those cars also to the growing outbound A-to-E train.
As the afternoon passed, I thought: “We sure are a great team, Art and I,” and I felt so proud of my contribution. But it was near the end of my shift when the regional manager, Art’s boss, came into Art’s office. “What the *X$$#* is the A-to-E train still doing in the yard?” he screamed. And after Art explained our great efforts, the boss further exclaimed: “You idiot!! Your delays have meant that the A-to-E cars will miss the cutoff at the next sorting yard, where they now will sit for an extra day --- and cost the railroad money!”
“You’re fired!!!” he screamed. And as I stood there in the office doorway, he stormed out past me.
I was stunned, and couldn’t speak for a few minutes, as I looked at the equally stunned Art. What would he tell his family? Art had listened to me and my great ideas …. “I’m so sorry, Art,” was all I could say. “That’s all right,” he responded. “It’s my fault; I should have known better.” And he picked up his coat and lunch pail and left the office.
I never saw Art or his family again. I’m not sure I ever even thought about him again; I think at the time it was too painful. I guess my shocked mind wouldn’t let me go there. And as wise as I thought myself to be, I can now look back and see how stupid I was; what a stupid thing I had done, in my pride.
It’s been a lot of years since I “helped” my friend, Art, get fired. And in those intervening years how many times have I thought the words I did this morning about a boss or a friend: “I’ve got a great idea! Why won’t he listen to me?”
How much pride I have had!
How often have you, too, had a great idea, but your wife or your kids or your priest or your boss or your Church or your company or your government wouldn’t listen? We all have so many great ideas, don’t we? We all have such great pride. “Why won’t they listen to me?”
It was only a short parable, but I think it an important one, which ended with the words: “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s.” I think perhaps at that time Jesus’ followers didn’t understand this message; it is a hard one to accept. Caesar was ruler for the Empire, and responsible for it. Jesus’ followers might have looked at Him and thought: “But you know so much more than Caesar; You could find better uses for that money; You could be fairer than Caesar’s taxes.” And looking at all Jesus wanted to accomplish, certainly they were right. He could better accomplish what he wished to accomplish. But that was not what Caesar wished to accomplish, because that was not what Caesar was OBLIGATED to accomplish. Caesar was obligated to rule the Empire as best as he could; Jesus was obligated to save souls as best He could. So Jesus said “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s” so that he can do what he should --- and if he then fails in his obligations, he shall answer for it. But Caesar is obligated to do many things, even beyond the immediate focus of Jesus. In His words to His followers, Jesus was telling them that they were not obligated, indeed they should not interfere, with tasks which were not theirs. And they should trust others, even if perhaps they thought they could do better than they. Unless they had the obligations of those others, they should only help others to the degree appropriate (even to paying taxes, or voting, or submitting suggestions to leaders). But to demand or expect that others should follow them is prideful and perhaps even dangerous --- everyone can’t lead at the same time; that is anarchy. And in the chaos, someone might lose their job --- or worse.
Jesus knew there was an order to things; how many of us (myself at the head of the list) want to lead in almost anything we take a mind to? Whether we justify our pride by “I know my rights,” or “I have a great idea,” or “You’re biased against me,” or just a whiney “Why won’t you listen to me,” one of the last things we do is look in the mirror and really see ourselves. As a teenager who knew so much, how I now wish I could have looked in the mirror then and saw my true self; perhaps Art would still have had a job, and his family might have lived much better lives. Except for my pride.
I’d would liked to have had the priest stop what he was doing this morning and say to me: “Wow! That is a great idea!! Get with me after mass and we’re figure out how we’ll do this thing for this great big parish.” It would have been a déjà vu moment: Art listening to the teenager again. And what great disaster might await if this priest with so many souls in his care leapt to grab the ideas of one prideful soul --- even if those ideas might indeed be pretty good. Do you grasp what I am saying here? It was not for no reason that some wise man once said: “It’s hard to be humble.” It is. But it also is hard to accept and focus on OUR obligations, FIRST. The priest IS respectful of me and is surely interested in my ideas, but he has other obligations, bigger obligations, FIRST. Just as I was not aware of the schedules Art was responsible to keep, I certainly am not aware of the many obligations of my local parish priest. And as for the obligations of even higher ranking officials, well I am even less likely to know or understand them ---- even if in my pride I think I do.
We were all made with talents and for a purpose. We are all in a certain place in our lives, with certain obligations. If we are married, with children, they are our most immediate obligations. If we are employed for a job, accomplishing that is our immediate obligation, when we are at work. The further remote are our associations beyond the immediate ones, the more remote our obligations. In those entities, churches, companies, dioceses, cities, states, countries, there will be some who will have as their immediate obligation the care of those entities; it will be THEIR work obligation. We are to support them as appropriate, rendering to Caesar what is Caesar’s; we are not to seek to dictate to them or demand their allegiance to us, or our ideas. Our ideas to them are suggestions, no matter how good they are, and they get many suggestions. It is only in pride that we believe they must listen to us.
This is a hard thing to accept. I know. But then again, I was privileged to see up close and first hand, the destruction my pride can accomplish. Just because I read so much, I know so much, I think so much, does not mean I’ve read everything, I know everything, or I can think of everything. Only pride would make me believe that to be true.
But what, you may ask, about the “idiot boss,” or the “stupid rule,” or the “just plain evil ruler.” Surely we are not to just sit back and do nothing, are we? Well, perhaps you are. You know the saying “Sometimes doing nothing is better than doing something.” Sometimes that statement is true, in particular when you do something with incomplete facts --- like my recommendations to Art. From all I knew I gave him great advice, but I did not know enough, and “I did not know what I did not know.” But I thought I did. And I was wrong.
For every “idiot boss,” or “stupid rule,” or “evil ruler” who you run across, you can and should use the talents you were blessed with, in the manner in which you are obligated to. You offer your boss ideas and advice; you back it with facts and data; you enlist others to help support your thoughts (and provide additional thoughts you might not have considered), and then you listen to your boss’s response. If he responds without understanding your ideas and advice, go back and develop additional clarifications to help him understand, and if he then sees your conclusions and disagrees … shut up. If something harmful or dangerous might result, perhaps you might go over his head, but in general I would advise you to shut up and get on with your other responsibilities. On this task, you have done your responsibility; don’t let other obligations suffer because of your pride on this one.
And if, like Art, your boss accepts your great ideas and they fail, don’t explain that they failed because of information you didn’t have. If you’ve done your job as you should and considered information available to you, stop worrying. We all fail sometimes; sometimes it is our fault, and sometimes it is not. But in either case we should accept it and move on --- having learned some lesson which, hopefully we will not forget in the future.
As I forgot Art.I said a prayer for him this morning, and for me.