Column: Do you see problems or gifts?

by Father Mark Goldasich

Sometimes you come across a story that is so simple, yet so full of wisdom, you just know it’s going to change your life. The following one comes from the late Eileen Egan, a Catholic author, longtime project coordinator for Catholic Relief Services, a tireless civil rights activist, and the official biographer and a dear friend of Mother Teresa.

Egan writes: “One day, after my conversation had been filled with a litany of problems, Mother Teresa remarked, ‘Everything is a problem. Why not use the word Gift?’ With that began a shift in vocabulary.

“Shortly thereafter, we were to fly from Vancouver to New York City. I was dismayed to learn that the trip had to be broken en route, with a long delay, and was about to inform her of the problem. Then I caught myself and said, ‘Mother, I have to tell you about a gift. We have to wait four hours here, and you won’t arrive at the convent until very late.’ Mother Teresa settled down in the airport to read a book of meditations, a favorite of hers.

“From that time on, items that presented disappointments or difficulties would be introduced with ‘We have a small gift here,’ or ‘Today we have an especially big gift.’” (Found in “Nelson’s Complete Book of Stories, Illustrations & Quotes” by Robert J. Morgan.)

I used this story a few weeks ago in a homily and have been receiving e-mails since then from parishioners telling me of recent “gifts” in their lives. The story seems to have struck a chord not only in my own heart, but in other people’s as well.

It’s funny how changing a single word — “problem” to “gift” — can alter your perception. The word “problem” carries a negative connotation that puts me on guard and makes me defensive. It’s something I want to avoid at all costs. On the contrary, the word “gift” conjures up pleasant thoughts and hopeful feelings; it’s something that I embrace, appreciate, welcome. As always, Mother Teresa was on to something with her recommendation.

In just a few days, with the start of October, we begin another Respect Life Month. An unusual way to celebrate these days might be to start with our vocabulary. Do we see life as primarily a series of problems to be endured or as a treasure trove of gifts to be uncovered? How do we approach life’s challenges — with resignation and pessimism or with a spirit of creativity and hope?

This week’s paper highlights the stories of some remarkable people — folks who transformed serious problems into occasions for discovering gifts. They did so, not in isolation, but in communion with others. They did so, relying not on their own efforts, but on the strength that comes from faith. They did so, not instantaneously, but gradually. In the process, they have come to a deeper appreciation of themselves, their neighbors, and the incredible power of faith and love. Their issues are by no means solved; plenty of struggles await. Yet I’m sure that the power of God’s grace and love, already at work in their lives, will continue not only to sustain them but help them discover the gifts hidden within the problems.

I hope that you’ll take time to be inspired by these stories: of parents cherishing a daughter who has Down syndrome; of a soldier seriously wounded in Iraq, yet a source of inspiration for many others, including members of an archdiocesan parish; and of a family shaken by the struggles of a son who served in Iraq and came home physically intact but psychologically fragile. These courageous people illustrate much of what this Respect Life month is all about. Life is often not fair or easy or controllable. Despite that, its problems — even the life- and heart-altering ones — can be transformed into gifts by the power of God’s grace, by faith, by the concrete actions of others and, most of all, by love.

Perhaps if only for the month of October, take Mother Teresa’s words to heart. Banish the word “problem” from your vocabulary; use “gift” instead. And see if that simple “shift in vocabulary” doesn’t produce a profound shift in your heart, mind and soul.

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