The Better Part of Valor

I was reminded today of a passage from Desert Sinner, a Father Dowling Mystery. I picked up the first of the Father Dowling books a few years ago from the library. I was interested both because it is written by one of my favorite modern philosophers, Ralph McInerny, but also because I used to watch the ABC version of Father Dowling on TV with my Dad. Was I ever surprised. Father Dowling on TV was played by Tom Bosley, and was a jovial, avuncular figure with a sister for a sidekick. Ralph McInerny's Father Dowling is an ascerbic, sarcastic, recovering alcoholic who had to be relieved of his duties on the diocesan marriage tribunal because it drove him to drink.

However, this turned into a pleasant surprise, because Father Dowling has the power to know men's souls, and he puts his gift to good use in parish ministry. In a strange way, parish ministry is better for Father Dowling, even though in a certain sense he has been put out to pasture. In Desert Sinner, Father Dowling is forced to reprimand his housekeeper for offering religious advice to a young woman that eventually ends in the death of the young woman's suitor. His housekeeper, Marie Murkin, responds by being subservient and deferential to annoy Father Dowling. Father Dowling cast around for something to restore an even tenor to his household, but eventually events simply intervene for him.

I was struck by this passage, because the typical advice these days would be to "talk it all out". By way of example, my company has this training class we all take called LET (Leadership Effectiveness Training). I hated it, and I have nothing good to say about it ever since I took it. It took me a while to know exactly why; I just hated it instantly. Eventually, I figured it out: LET treats other people like they are less than human. To explain, LET is focused on avoiding unproductive behaviors when you are trying to solve interpersonal problems. For example, accusing someone of something usually gets their hackles up. So LET focuses on "I" statements instead of "You" statements. So far so good. The idea is to express your emotions on a subject rather than accuse someone else of wrongdoing. It is actually pretty hard to do, which is supposedly evidence of effectiveness. However, in time I came to see my problem with LET as it attempts to manipulate people as if they had no free will. You are supposed to use a "I" statement in order to get the person to do what you want. The problem is that people change their behavior if they figure out they are being manipulated, so it stops working. I think a big part of the creators problem is that he first made something called PET (Parent Effectiveness Training), and this approach would work on a small child. They really wouldn't figure it out. When they get older, I bet they are pissed.

Father Dowling did nothing of the sort, he looked for a way to resolve the problem that would leave everyone's dignity intact. LET always has this master-slave kind of dichotomy to it that is ultimately destructive of human dignity. I probably reacted to the air of smug superiority it is steeped in. In practice, I have sometimes needed to use the direct approach, but definitely not all the time! The direct approach is pretty costly emotionally for everyone involved, whereas in many cases, not confronting the problem directly can work because everyone involved just moves on. Dragging up unpleasantness is no fun, it should be reserved for extreme cases.  Ralph McInerny has been around the block enough times to really make this point come out clearly in his fiction.