Dr. Thomas Lane Butts: Things You Can't Change, and Things You Can

We live in a frustrating world where there are nagging problems we cannot change - certainly not in the short term - maybe not in a lifetime - maybe never. Nothing frustrates us more than nagging personal problems. Frustration leads to resentment - and resentment to anger. Chronically angry people do strange and uncreative things to themselves and others, none of which resolves or even lessens the nagging problems.

There are problems in life that are beyond our power to fix. These are almost always problems outside ourselves. We have all worked on age-old social problems we wanted to fix only to discover that in spite of our best efforts, solutions would not likely take place in our lifetime, and maybe never.

There are problems in and between people we know and love that are beyond our power to fix. Sometimes there are problems in members of our immediate family that are beyond our power to fix no matter how hard we work and pray.

I have an old friend who, when he writes me, ends every letter with a well-known Latin idiom: "Amor vincit omni" - love conquers all. It is a lovely and hopeful thought, but its practical application has notable exceptions. Christians tend to extol the virtues of love as the immediate and final cure for everything. It pains me to tell you that this is not true, certainly not in the simplistic way in which we usually think and speak of love. Nothing is the cure for everything.

The only nagging problems we have the power to fix are our personal problems. Even then, there is no ‘silver bullet'. If we have deep-seated unresolved anger, frustration, hatred or any other negative feeling that is burning us, it lies within our power to do something about it. No one else can do it for us. It will take intentional effort, or prayer or counseling or all of the above, but it is within our power.

As I write this column, I have just come from a meeting where I listened to one of my heroes speak, Col Glenn Frazier. He is a World War II veteran and a survivor of the Bataan Death March. His suffering in that experience was beyond words. He hated the Japanese. Col. Frazier said that his hatred of the enemy was a useful, if not an essential attitude as a soldier at war. But, when the war was over and the enemy was defeated, the hatred did not go away. It intensified and became generalized He hated Japanese automobiles, electronics and everything made in Japan. He came to hate people who bought anything made in Japan. The war was over, but not for Col. Frazier. In his heart there was no peace treaty. Twenty-five years of hatred rewarded him with nightmares every night. He dreaded going to sleep and finally could not sleep. His pastor counseled him that forgiveness was the only solution. He did not see how this was possible. But, after 25 years of suffering after the war, he decided he had to do something, and forgiveness was about the only thing he had not tried. So, with the tools of his faith and help of God he set out to forgive the Japanese. The process took two and one-half years. Probably the most difficult thing he ever did, but he did it. He finally threw down that weapon that was so useful to him as a soldier at war, but which was so self-destructive for him as a civilian in peace time. He said that after the process of forgiveness was complete, he has never had another nightmare!

In James Lee Burke's novel, A Stained White Radiance, there is an interesting and insightful encounter between Detective Dave Robicheaux and his AA sponsor, Tee Neg, an uneducated Cajun who could barely read and write. Before Tee Neg bought a bar and poolroom, he was a pipeline and an oil-field roughneck. Three fingers on his right hand were snipped off by a drilling chain. It is obvious to Tee Neg that Robicheaux is chronically worried and frustrated, so he decides to do some ‘Cajun counseling'. This is what he said:

"You're studying this case all the time. You t'ink that's it, but it ain't. You bothered by the way t'ings are, the way we got trouble with the colored peoples all the time, you bothered ‘cause it ain't like it used to be. You want sout' Lou'sana to be like it used to be. You want sout' Lou'sana to be like it was when you and me and yo' daddy went all day and went everywhere and never spoke one word of English. You walk away when you hear white people talking bad about them Negro, like that bad feeling ain't in their hearts. But you keep pretend it's like it used to be, Dave, that these bad t'ings ain't in white people's hearts, then you gonna be walking away the rest of yo' life.

"I had seven years sobriety, me. Then I started studying on them fingers I left on that drill pipe. I'd get up with it in the morning, just like you wake up with an ugly, mean woman. I'd drag it around with me all day. I'd look at them pink stumps till they'd start throbbing. Then I went fishing one afternoon, went into a colored man's bait store to buy some shiners, told that man I was gonna catch me a hunnerd fish befo' the sun get behind them willow tree. Then I told him I changed my mind, just give me a quart of whiskey and don't bother about no shiners. I got drunk five years. Then I spent one in the penitentiary. Get mad about what you can't change and maybe you'll get to do just what Tee Neg done".

Do you understand that?!