The way things are vs. the way things ought to be

Residents of Cedar Crest Drive in Abilene, Texas, walk past their burning house Feb. 15, 2021, as firefighters fight the blaze. The firefighters were only able to draw water from one hydrant because all three city water treatment plants were offline due to cold weather power outages. (CNS photo/Ronald W. Erdrich, Reporter-News, USA Today Network via Reuters)

There is a great dichotomy happening in our culture today between “the way it is” and “the way it ought to be.” 

Permit me to explain. I spent 24 years as a police officer, several of which were as a detective, before retiring to my new career. I was honored to serve a wonderful city. But even in a safer city, you see the worst of the worst. 

Police work can be toxic. After a while, it can lead to a deep cynicism. And if officers don’t take hold of that, it can carry them away. I recall the last few months of my career, while working toward my master’s degree at Sacred Heart Major Seminary. I told my wife regularly, “I can’t wait to get out of this toxic environment” so I can go to work for a Catholic School or church, where “everything will be like heaven, and everyone will get along all the time.”

I’m not sure if I was embracing a supernatural hope, or being woefully naïve, but I discovered something after I left the police world: human nature is present in both. In the law enforcement world, I expected it. In the church world, it took some time to realize that though our Church is a divine institution — it is composed of people. People can have faults, and that includes me. 

Much of the news in our world today isn’t good. I’ve learned to limit my news and social media watching, and to syphon only the information that will help me navigate or bring my family peace. There isn’t much of it. And the tendency for me is to lose hope.

A Christian friend recently quipped, “I feel like I’ve been locked in the book of Job for the last year. Know what I mean?” As a matter of fact, I do. To add to that, we read regular reports of people within our Church or schools who have fallen to weakness, sin or downright evil. Some of what is reported is misinformation. Some of it is true. That’s “the way it is.” The problem for me is when I fail to look beyond the “is” part to the “ought to be.” It brings me back to my policing days.

My wife and I made a concerted effort to have friends outside the police world. It reminded us that what I experienced — what my police friends experienced — wasn’t the norm. There are good people. It’s much the same within our Catholic parishes and schools. We live in the “way it is” but we strive for the “way it ought to be.” It’s what Jesus told his disciples in the Gospels, and what Peter struggled with numerous times, not the least of which was when he walked toward Jesus despite stormy waters. When he focused on the “ought to be,” he thrived. When he looked at “the way it is,” he sank. I can do the same. I’ve found a few things that have helped me navigate these times when they seem hopeless.  

“Stay in your lane.” A cohort of mine and I were discussing struggles within our Church when she said something interesting. It occurred to me she was right. The tendency for those of us in ministry is to try and save everyone. Maybe the best we can to is simply “stay in our lane” and do what we do best. If we teach the faith, continue teaching it. If we counsel people, continue counseling. And if all we do is act as a role model for young people, give them a role model — a clear view of what “ought to be.”

St. Thomas Aquinas once wrote: “Virtue is a habit that exposes us to reason.” The more we practice goodness, the better we get at it. But in order to do so, we must keep our eyes on the prize. Jesus warned his disciples to “trust not in man” but to look to Him. If I can keep my eyes on Christ, I’ll be less likely to falter to the fear of the day. 

Maybe it’s through our failings we can find the humility to let God lead us. But only if we recognize where we’re going instead of resigning at where we are.

Paul Stuligross is a retired police officer. He currently teaches theology at St. Mary’s Preparatory High School, and is an adjunct instructor at SS. Cyril & Methodius Seminary in Orchard Lake.