Lessons from Milton – Stop Saying Nothing
Have you ever seen the movie, Office Space? It’s not a great movie, though it definitely has its funny moments and ideas.
One of the odd things that popped into my head recently was the character, Milton, played pretty hysterically by Stephen Root. Milton is a man for whom nothing seems to go right. Turns out, he was actually let go from the company long ago, but somehow they just failed to push through the paperwork. But no problem; they’ll just stop his paychecks like they were supposed to then. “Is someone going to tell him?” asks the manager. “No,” reply the consultants. “We find that if we just don’t say anything, these sorts of things tend to work themselves out.”
Well, just not paying Milton (among other things) while he’s convinced he still has a job does certainly work itself out… rather catastrophically, I might add.
It’s amusing when it’s in a comedic movie, but the thing that makes me cringe is that I see this kind of thing happen over and over again in a particular context: Christian organizations. Churches, ministries, companies and non-profits run by Christians, etc. Christians fail to say what needs to be said because “these sorts of things just tend to work themselves out.”
But they don’t. And doing and saying nothing tends to cause more problems in the long run. When there are problems with another person, we Christians tend to not like to take action because we’re afraid of the conflict, afraid of hurting the other person, or afraid of being hurt by that person. We don’t want to feel bad, and we don’t want them to be angry with us, so we do… nothing.
But the more nothing happens, the more the problems cause increasing friction or grow larger and more complicated. Everything gets worse, not better, and then saying something can be even harder because, “Well, why didn’t you just say something in the first place?!”
We’re chicken, we Christians. And I’m not pointing fingers from a pedestal. I think of a time in a library where a couple was loudly discussing something one aisle away from me while I was trying to study. I couldn’t concentrate, but I did nothing, just hoping they’d go away. It took them several minutes while I sat there gnashing my teeth, growing steadily more angry, and then when they did leave, it took me a few more minutes to settle down because I was so frustrated with how rude they were.
Of course, I should have been just as frustrated with myself for being so cowardly. All I had to really do was walk over and say, “Could you please keep it down? People are trying to study here.” But I didn’t. Because I was afraid of their reaction. I could say that I didn’t want to be rude or that they should know better or that I didn’t want to hurt their feelings, but the reality is that some piece of my gut was expecting them to lash out at me in response. Even knowing consciously that that was highly unlikely did me little good. My deep heart still feared that was going to happen. For others, maybe it is a matter of wanting to follow social protocols and rules, but regardless, there’s a problem and doing nothing causes nothing to happen.
I’ve watched sexist employees suffer no consequences and keep abusing (wo)men around them because no one wanted to make waves. (Weren’t waves already made by the sexist employee?) I’ve seen lazy and ineffective employees carry on, accomplishing little because no one wants to confront them and give them an ultimatum. (Is allowing someone under your authority to be a lousy steward of their time and the company’s money a good stewardship of your time and the company’s money?) I’ve worked with Christians who are angry and mean-spirited. whose attitudes seem to grate on everyone’s nerves, and no one says anything to them (though the grumbling about them behind their backs is constant) because nobody wants to deal with the conflict. (Isn’t there conflict already happening, just unvoiced?)
We have developed a culture of conflict avoidance and tip-toeing and tolerance of problems and sometimes even blatant sin. And we sometimes even call it being Christian, being loving, being kind. Really, we’re being chicken, and when we do nothing in this way, we end up living with pointless friction that wears all of us down, we end up with sin thriving in our midst, we end up having to pick up the slack of those who don’t carry their own load (a biblical idea, I might add).
As a culture, part of our growth curve must be to move beyond this. We have to learn to speak up and take action. Not only so, we have to learn to follow through when things don’t improve and make the hard call – letting someone go, telling someone his flaws, pulling someone out of a position of authority, etc. “God did not give us a Spirit of timidity,” said Paul. It won’t just happen; we have to grow into it, and that takes work, practice, and risking.
I know someone who used to work in a secular workplace who said that she specifically remembered a co-worker marching down the hall, screaming, “I HATE THAT F****** B****!” over and over again. There was something refreshing about that, she said. The honesty had something really rather valuable. While that’s a bit far, shouldn’t we be “laying aside falsehood, and speak[ing] truth each one of you with her neighbor”? Even if the truth isn’t pleasant?
How much do you avoid conflict, even when conflict might need to happen? Do you shy away from speaking up when someone might react poorly? Could God be calling you to examine your fears and take risks in order to work through problems where you live and work? What would the Spirit say if you had a talk with Him?