Got A Attitude by George Merrill

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Some years ago my wife and returned from Baltimore after visiting children. The traffic downtown was stop and go. We’d frequently be stalled. We wound up next to a car in which two young people were arguing about something. Finally one turned to the other and yelled loudly enough for us to hear: “You know what your problem is? You got a attitude.”

I think of attitude as a kind of atmospheric mist. We exude it. It surrounds us in the way mists hover over tidewater on fall mornings. Some call it an aura, others a spirit and still others, attitude. Writers call it a voice. It influences how we do things, as we negotiate life’s challenges. The quality of the aura or attitude contributes to creating a tone. Attitudes encourage one mood or another, say, of antagonism or conciliation, sympathy or contempt. Attitudes can hinder or facilitate cooperation. As a result of the incident in Baltimore, my wife and I created a functional buzzword to use when we get testy with one another. Then, one of us is sure to say, “You got a attitude.”

I think of “a attitude” as something distinctively acerbic and hostile. There are, however, all kinds of attitudes. It’s worth noting that for airplane pilots, as well as for many people, having the right attitude is matter of life and death. An ADI, an airplane instrument, or ‘attitude directional indicator,’ communicates to the pilot whether his plane has the proper attitude i.e., its correct position with reference to the horizon. On that score, pilots learn not to trust their instincts where attitude is concerned. If they do, they’ll develop a bad attitude, never know it, and ditch the plane.

Our daughter’s adolescence was prickly. She appeared one day in the living room looking especially defiant. She sported a T-shirt with “I Love My Attitude” prominently inscribed on it. She was making her point with what I would describe as “a attitude.” If only there had been ADI for teens. After a number of near crashes, in a year or so, she lost it; her attitude I mean.

Author and business consultant Steven Corey wrote a book. He noticed the habits of especially effective people. In particular, he identified attitudes, if you will, by which you and I approach our tasks. He calls one attitude, the scarcity mentality, the other, the abundance mentality. They shape personal inclinations and determine the actions that proceed from the mindset.

Covey believes most of us operate from a scarcity mentality. It’s an attitude toward life that insists there is only so much to go around. What you gain will necessarily deprive others. The scarcity mindset believes there will never be enough. Whether it’s money, food, emotions or something else entirely there’s always too little. We look at life from what we lack rather than what we have. It’s an anxious attitude that sees others as adversaries. The mindset breeds a climate of mistrust and it’s difficult to achieve cooperation.

An abundance mentality, on the other hand, flows out of a deep inner feeling of personal worth and security. It cultivates the sense that affirms the plenty available, how there’s enough to spare for everybody if we pull together. This attitude results in sharing of resources, prestige, recognition, profits, and decision-making. It opens up new possibilities while taking pleasure in the successes of others.

There are two highly visible world leaders today. They’re intent on addressing current inequities and deprivations – although not exactly the same ones. These men are regarded as rebels by their constituencies and both boldly challenge the status quo of their respective historic institutions. Donald Trump, a political rebel, addresses his tasks from a scarcity mentality. Pope Francis, a spiritual rebel, proceeds from a mentality of abundance. The former betrays “a attitude,” that there’s not enough and winners must grab what they can. The latter’s attitude is one of hope; there’s plenty, but we must learn to share it with others.

Trump’s public declarations are typically ominous and reflect his scarcity mentality. He scolds, warns and reminds us of the failure of our institutions, the catastrophes wrought by the previous administration, our ineffective policies and the inept public officials serving the country before his tenure. There are Muslims behind every tree ready to take what’s ours. In short, his pitch is that it’s a disgraceful country in a dog-eat-dog world but he’ll fix it.

In a striking move that was no less radical than John XXIII’s encyclical, Pacem in Terris, Pope Francis went over the heads of church traditionalists, when be began carrying out an inclusive agenda on migration, climate change and poverty. It made him a figure of unmatched global popularity. It touched the hearts of many, but offended others.

Pope’s vision of sharing abundance, caring for the earth, and bringing justice the poor, is considered by some Catholics (both lay and cleric) to be a betrayal of the West’s traditional Judeo-Christian values. There are politicians that believe that the pope is “seriously misguided” and is a “socialist.” It’s odd that informed people might regard Francis’ teaching as misguided. It’s the essence of Judeo Christian spirituality – although admittedly not always its practice. From the beginning, compassion and generosity have been a hard sell but thankfully never wholly forgotten.

What are we to make of it?

It’s about attitude. To approach the needs of our world with “a attitude,” polarizes and limits possibilities. We become mostly fearful and defensive. If we can alter our present course and its attitude of scarcity to one of abundance, new possibilities will open up naturally.

Columnist George Merrill is an Episcopal Church priest and pastoral psychotherapist.  A writer and photographer, he’s authored two books on spirituality: Reflections: Psychological and Spiritual Images of the Heart and The Bay of the Mother of God: A Yankee Discovers the Chesapeake Bay. He is a native New Yorker, previously directing counseling services in Hartford, Connecticut, and in Baltimore. George’s essays, some award winning, have appeared in regional magazines and are broadcast twice monthly on Delmarva Public Radio.

Letters to Editor

  1. Carol Voyles says:

    Thank you, George, for a moment of sanity this Sunday morning.

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