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Last Wednesday I highlighted Julie Jansen’s stress upon one’s values as part of a general assessment of career planning and reduction of job stress. I did not have time or space to look at her other two criteria, attitude and change resilience. The topic of “attitude” caught my eye in particular because the very word has taken on a pejorative meaning, as in “my kid shows too much attitude.” I stopped treating minors five years ago, which may as well be a century, so maybe there is new terminology. But “attitude” has always been a little suspect. Somewhere the word “attitude” became married to the word “defiant” to the point that a healthy assertiveness is now suspect as well. A priest friend of mine—very much his own man--who went on to become a president of two colleges told me that on the day of his ordination, when he went to say good-bye to his superior of several years, the senior told him, “The problem with you is you push too much.” When I was young the age-appropriate expression of attitude among teens was a haircut known as a DA or “duck’s behind.” The parental reaction was typically “you look like a hood.” If you’ve ever seen the Fonz…
Actually, attitude is a neutral word, defined by Jansen as “your state of mind or feelings with regard to a person, idea, or thing. There is a wealth of research to correlate attitude and behavior. (p. 34ff) Unless someone is suffering from mood disorder, such as depression, attitude changes according to circumstance. As a kid my attitude on June 25 or thereabouts was always festive, as the Catholic school system closed and I had two months for sports, board games on the porch, and even reading. (I somehow obtained an adult-level library card for the Buffalo Library System around the fourth grade—I have no idea who pulled the strings. Maybe I showed them my report card. Maybe the bar wasn’t so high.)
The difficulty with attitude is masking it when it would create stresses. Doing one thing but feeling something quite different creates many negative physical and psychological conditions. The psychological term is incongruence. Here is where the workplace issues live. There is a saying about getting paid for doing what you really like to do. Polling consistently indicates that not very many people feel this is true about them. I suspect that a good number of people continue employment with a “determined” attitude, committed by their value system to feeding their families and making positive contributions to society. Likewise I also think that a number of those in church ministry—including clergy and religious—bring an attitude of duty and commitment to the Bible, the Creed, the universal Church, their vows, the church of their childhood and history, the past and present good works of the placement, etc. There is a quiet heroism here that should never be overlooked, though I fear that church workers do not receive the emotional support they need because, in the minds of their employers, they are just doing their duty and following God. Ironic, isn’t it?
But duty without passion is not sustainable for good health. The longer one endures a job or more likely a career where the moral imperative for the career is in tension with genuine affect and feelings about it, there is a fatiguing process that sets into motion a number of troublesome behavior. At the benign end of the spectrum an individual without an attitude of at least some satisfactory expectation from the work place will gradually become a clock watcher; he or she will pass up continuing education, a sad thing when many professional seminars offer new, inventive, and challenging insights into the old boring routine. As dissatisfaction continues, physical care begins to deteriorate. Exercise is abandoned. Issues of weight become more problematic (obesity among church workers is an issue rarely addressed; I did come across a 2006 article from the Washington Post on the subject.) Food, at least temporarily, brings a fulfillment that the work place is not providing. There was a point in my church work and again in my mental health career where my very appearance was contradicting my message of religious wholeness. Other remedies to soothe the pain of dissonance include legal and illegal use of certain drugs—tranquilizers, pain killers, marijuana, etc. as well as pornography, excess spending, etc. Alcohol consumption increases. Professional health providers can pick up physical deterioration from incongruence in many parts of the body. My dentist can spot stress by the wear on my teeth.
The end product here is that eventually the suppressed feelings will break through. Church ministers in many instances let this process occur under a counselor’s care. It is a lengthy process, connected as it is to one’s self-image over many years, an image that is hard to forsake. If untreated, a burned out minister becomes either an empty shell going through the paces, or worse, an angry soul whose work among the people is actually a debit to the Church’s mission. I would note, though, that anger is an appropriate reaction to the degree that there is lots in the Church at every level. I have been following this week’s debates at the annual U.S. bishops’ conference. With all sorts of raging moral issues among us, including the national debate on immigration, not to mention the pope’s messages to bishops during his visit here, the agenda so far has included (1) a statement on pornography—I’ll go out on a limb and guess they’re against it, and (2) the possibility of a lighter Mass Missal because altar servers find the present one too heavy.
Particularly with middle age and seniority there is a tendency for all of us Catholics to feel that the “institutional Church” has been spinning its wheels in bureaucratic flurry to mask its own dissonance over its inability to effect meaningful religious conversion. It is important for all of us involved in the Church in any way to come to grips with this and other realities of ministry and come clean to ourselves about how we actually feel, not what “duty binds us to feel.” This assessment of attitude provides the data necessary to determine how, where, and even if to serve the Church in a fashion that no longer demoralizes but rather emphasizes the charisms of nature and faith we received in Baptism. A group of Galilean fishermen made major career changes because the idea of being “fishers of men” seemed like a much better idea.