Tuesday, August 14, 2012


There is an email being circulated quoting the Prime Minister of Australia, Julia Gillard. I have friends from all over the political map so if you didn’t get this one, you won’t get it from me. But there is a story here for organizations and families. It’s called the Problem-Saturated Story.

Part of her supposed speech as reported on email and Snopes: “This is our country, our land, and our lifestyle, and we will allow you every opportunity to enjoy all this. But once you are done complaining, whining, and griping about our flag, our pledge, our Christian beliefs, or our way of life, I highly encourage you take advantage of one other great Australian freedom, the right to leave.”

I have read editorials that had too much fun by half declaiming the many faults of our country. We were leaving the Metropolitan Art Museum in New York City and met a protester on the sidewalk. His placard encouraged us to do unmentionable things to then-President George Bush. We cheerfully disagreed but encouraged him to express his opinions. A couple were strolling past and heard our exchange. When I exclaimed, “Isn’t this a wonderful country where we can disagree,” the woman hissed and although walking away from us, continued to turn back to hiss more. (Until then I had never heard a human hiss-s-s.) What upset her I’m not sure and I wasn’t interested in asking. I suspect she was one with the editors who enjoy telling horror stories about “the Tea Party.” And there are those who enjoy telling similar tales about “the Left.”  If I join any of them, I will be participating in a Problem-Saturated Story.

We occasionally get a health care worker who takes our report of a resident and tries to turn it into a story about what a problem the resident is. Such commiseration is unprofessional and unappreciated. We cut them off. Dementia is what it is.

When you overhear someone in your congregation, book club, or family launch into a diatribe about how awful something is or how difficult, or how they just can’t understand, you are being invited to a Problem-Saturated whine fest. You might for a brief moment join them by thinking, “If you think your husband  is bad let me tell you about mine.” All of us have multiple substitutions for husbands. Mothers-in-law have been fair game since Cain and Abel (The Bible. Genesis 4).

Organizations and families may blunder into an atmosphere of problem-saturation. Emotional discharges will turn the air blue once permission is given. Transforming the tune of P-S tales becomes almost impossible short of a traumatic, public censure of the story tellers. The stories are addictive and close the book on the subject having any possible redemptive value.

I was visiting a couple and the wife informed me that she could barely sit in her pew and listen to that man. Just watching him walk you could see that he was blahblahblah.  For her, attending church had become an exciting opportunity to invent more nasty tales.

I had several choices: silence which could be seen as consent, join the party and tell a problem-saturated story of my own, or argue with her. I chose to follow Matthew 18 which instructs us to go to the sister who has ticked us off and “show her fault.” If you get no satisfaction, find a third party who can provide accountability and attempt reconciliation. I asked the wife if she had spoken to the minister about her feelings.  I was soon ushered out of their home and the wife never spoke to me again.

The difficulty with Problem-Saturated Stories is that the teller rarely desires truth or accountability. He wants to diminish and whine. P-S stories put forward as fact what is simply a narrative of oft-repeated testimony by a biased witness.  Someone needs to step outside the circle, snap their fingers, and disrupt the trance of the P-S storyteller.  Someone needs to ask accountability questions and offer to accompany the tale bearer to a meeting with her subject.

Especially if the scandal has substance. So what? Do we keep piling on stones, or stand next to the scoundrel offering a hand and the energy to pull him out of the pit? If he hisses at us he has written the final chapter of the story, and our mouths are sealed. We are free to walk to the coffee shop and share celebrative stories of humor and warmth and love with our friends.

P.S. If you are a leader and want to learn more, read Margaret Wheatley’s book Turning to One Another.  “There is no power greater than a community discovering what it cares about. Ask, ‘What’s possible?’ not ‘What’s wrong?’ Keep asking. . . . Be brave enough to start a conversation that matters.”

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