Despite all our time-saving devices and other modern conveniences, stress is still widespread in this modern age. We always seem to be in a hurry and worried over one thing or another. There appear to be two main sources of this near-constant anxiety.
First, we hold to the illusion that we are in control. Though we can control a lot of little things, those things are based on others we cannot control such as whether people we are depending on will arrive on time, or whether there will be a hurricane, or even the next beat of our heart. Thinking we can control life makes us much more anxious when things don’t turn out the way we expect. Accepting that we are not in control of most things can bring a paradoxical sense of peace. We learn to trust God and depend more on Him and others. Letting go of perfectionism is another way to bring internal peace.
A second source of our stress is that we want too much. This consumer age promises us more and more, but never mentions the bill. The more we have, the more there is to be managed and maintained. “More!” comes with a price, and anxiety is part of that price. Learning to be satisfied with and grateful for what we have can be another source of peace.
In the commercial below, a stressed-out man is reminded by a co-worker that he does not have to tackle life alone; others can help.
I was interviewed on National Public Radio last year regarding a blog post I had written a few years previously about the movie “Toy Story.” The link to the interview is at the bottom of this post. You may wish to skip my written remarks below and just go to the interview instead, as it incorporates most of my reflections.
There was a movie some years ago that most of you have probably seen called Toy Story. It had a profound impact on me, for it came out at a critical time in my life.
It was my 33rd year of life and the 6th year of my priesthood. As I have related elsewhere, I had suffered a nervous breakdown that required a week in the hospital and a month off to recuperate. What drove me to that point was agreeing to take an assignment I really wasn’t ready for. I was asked to pastor a parish that was in serious financial trouble. The stress nearly finished me.
Invincible? I was a young priest at the time, still in my “invincible” stage, when I thought I could do anything. I guess it’s fairly common for young men to think they can handle anything. During those years, opinions are strong, dreams are still vivid, and hard experiences have not yet taught their tough lessons.
So, this young priest said “yes” to the assignment, even though I had reservations. Soon enough, the panic attacks came, followed by waves of depression. There were days when I could barely come out of my room. A week in the hospital for evaluation, a month off to recuperate, and years of good spiritual direction, psychotherapy, and the sacraments have been God’s way of restoring me to health.
Somewhere during the early stages of my recovery, I saw the movie Toy Story. Right away, I recognized myself in Buzz Lightyear. Buzz begins the movie as a brash, would-be hero and savior of the planet. Buzz Lightyear’s tagline is, “To infinity … and beyond!” The only problem is that he seems to have no idea that he is a toy. He thinks he has come from a distant planet to save Earth. Buzz often radios to the mother ship and, hearing nothing, concludes that she must be just out of range.
At a critical point in the movie, it begins to dawn on Buzz that he is just a toy and may not be able to save the day. He struggles with this realization and resists it. He tries to leap to the rescue, not knowing he can’t really fly, and falls from the second floor breaking off his arm. Suddenly, Buzz realizes he’s just a toy, that all his boasting was based on an illusion. Buzz then sinks into depression, his sense of self destroyed.
But God wasn’t done with Buzz Lightyear. In the end, Buzz does save the day, by simply being what he was made to be: a toy. One of the neighborhood kids, Sid, straps Buzz to a rocket, intending to launch him high in the air. In the end, that enables Buzz to “fly” and save the day at a critical moment. Although Sid meant Buzz’s launch to cause harm, God meant it for good. The humiliation Buzz suffered enabled him to conquer his pride; it made him able to save the day.
The lesson of the movie is a critical one and certainly the lesson I learned in my own personal crisis. The lesson is that our greatness does not come from our inflated notions of our self but from God. God does not need or want us to pretend to be something we are not. He wants us to be exactly what He made us to be. It is often through our weakness that He is able to do His greatest work.
Just as Buzz comes to realize that he is just a toy, I have come to realize that I am but a man. I have certain gifts and lack others. Some doors are open to me and others are not. When I accept that and come to depend on God to fashion me and use me according to His will, great things are possible. If we go on living in sinful illusion, we miss our true calling and our proper place in God’s kingdom. Ultimately, each of us must come to discover the man or woman that God created us to be. That is our true greatness. It is often through our weaknesses and humiliations that we learn this best.
The first video at the bottom of this post is a remarkable portrait of a man who is overwhelmed, simply overwhelmed. He cannot live up to the expectations that are upon him, expectations from himself, and others.
One of the paradoxes of our time is that we have attained to an amazing possession of creature comforts (at least in the West) but, in many ways we have never been so uncomfortable. Stress and worry along with a gnawing dis-satisfaction accompany our high standard of living. The more we have the more worry. In a way, we have “too much to lose” and we want and expect so much that we’re never satisfied. There is a kind of slavery that comes with possessions. If we are not careful our possessions end up possessing us. Further they set loose desires in us that become extreme and difficult to master. In the end our desires expand with each new thing we get. It is like a man who over eats. His stomach stretches and so he must eat more each time to feel full. The Book of Ecclesiastes says,
Whoever loves money never has money enough; whoever loves wealth is never satisfied with his income. This too is meaningless….The sleep of a laborer is sweet, whether he eats little or much, but the abundance of a rich man permits him no sleep (Eccles 5:10,12)
The Second video is a Traveller’s Insurance Ad that well depicts how our possessions cause us worry and make us restless. Of course, they claim to have the solution. If you just buy their insurance, all your worries will vanish. Nevertheless it is a cute and poignant ad.
Two videos that well depict our times.
A Source of the Problem – Clearly the sense of being overwhelmed and fearful because we “have too much to lose” are notions that are created in us by some thought or philosophy. I want to propose to you that one of the deepest sources of our stress today comes from the notion that “you can have it all.” That’s right, the house in the suburbs, with cathedral ceilings in the great room, granite counter-tops, wide screen TVs, nice yard, great location, fancy SUVs, well, you know the list. But this is a lie. We cannot have it all. We have to make choices. Life involves trade-offs. Choosing one thing means that we have to say to say “no” to other things. Parents can’t always have double careers, double-incomes AND raise their kids well. Choices have to be made. Fathers can’t always climb the career ladder and still be reasonably present to their wife and children. The big house in the suburbs isn’t always a viable option if it means long commutes, time away from family, high mortgages that require overtime and part time jobs. Buying all the latest electronic gadgets isn’t always wise if we want to set money aside for the children’s education, or for retirement. We simply can’t have it all. We have to decide what is important and make real choices that reflect our priorities.
But as it is we often want too much and right away. We entertain the illusion that we can somehow have it all. This attitude then fuels unrealistic expectations. Not only can I have it all, I should have it all. And if I don’t have have it all then I am either resentful, or worried that I don’t measure up to other people’s unrealistic expectations. The old saying goes, Most of us spend money we don’t have, and buy things we don’t need, to impress people we don’t like. All of this is a recipe for stress, anxiety and anger.
What to do? Decide! Decide what is important to you and build your life around that. It’s going to mean that some other things have to go. If family and raising your kids is your priority, then always accepting the promotion may have to go if it means significantly less time at home. Some people do choose to wholly dedicate themselves to some work or cause. Fine. But think twice about getting married just now and don’t be so irresponsible as to have kids if you’re going to be off chasing your star. You likely can’t have both. As for possessions, simplify. It is far better to live in a smaller house in a less “up and coming” neighborhood and actually know your spouse and kids, than to live in the big house on the hill and have the whole place filled with anger and anxiety about money and you off at work for long hours pleasing the boss so you can get the promotion and actually afford the darn thing. The book of Proverbs says: Better a little with the fear of the LORD than great wealth with turmoil. Better a small serving of vegetables with love than a fattened calf with hatred (Prov 15:16-17).
In the end, less is more. We want too much. We think we can have it all. Not true, it just distracts and tortures us. Psalm 86:11 says, Make simple my heart, O Lord. Ask the Lord to help you desire what is good and best and then to build your life and priorities around that. You can’t have it all. You have to decide. Life involves trade-offs. We must learn this deeply. Otherwise expect to be overwhelmed and owned by what you claim to possess. A simple heart is a gift to pray for: Simplex fac cor meum Domine! (Make simple my heart O Lord!) Ps 86:11.
Here is a remarkable portrait of modern man: overwhelmed and anxious, fearful that he does not measure up to the unrealistic expectations of the world. And yet he seems unable to decide what is really important.
And here is a cute but poignant video about how our wealth affords us no rest.
We often think that worry and anxiety just happen to us. But the fact is that they result from our thoughts. Thoughts are the source of our worry. If we tend to think negatively, or to catastrophize or to focus on negative things we will grow anxious and sometimes angry. But the Bible says we ought to “dedicate ourselves to thankfulness.” (Colossians 3:21). In other words count your blessings and have an attitude of gratitude. We ought to discipline our minds every day and spend some time thanking God for what went right. As Phillipians 4:8 puts it: Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable–if anything is excellent or praiseworthy–think about such things.
What you feed grows. Focus on negative things and sure enough anxiety and anger increase and our sense of the negative grows. Focus on positive things and blessings and guess what, we are less anxious overall and our sense of well being grows.
Try it out for 30 Days. Let me know how it goes. The video below features a classic Spiritual: Didn’t My Lord Deliver Daniel? It list the many people God saved of old and then asks, “And why not every man?” That’s right even you and me. It will be alright. God may not come when you want him but He’s always right on time.
In today’s Gospel there are 13 men in a boat: Jesus with his apostles. When the storm sets in, 12 are in a panic, but one is so calm that he sleeps peacefully in the back of the boat. Who is right here? Jesus is, of course. Storms come and go, but God is working his purposes out. Nothing is out of control. Even in the sad a tragic moments of our life God can and does bring forth good. He can make a way a way out of no way and write straight with crooked lines. All things work together for good to those who love and trust God and are called according to his purpose. (Romans 8:28) For every door God closes he opens another.
After calming the storm Jesus asks a question that you and I must answer: “Why are you so terrified? Do you still lack faith?” You and I have to answer this question. Clearly our fear is rooted in our lack of trust, but why is it that we fail to trust? As I look back and even the most difficult moments of life I can see that God was up to something good, something better. Yet still fear and panic are only one setback away.
Consider Jesus sleeping through a storm, consider 12 other men in a panic. Who is right and who sees more truly the reality of that moment, the 1 or the 12? Why are you terrified? What if the storm is supposed to be there. What if it’s actually doing something good? Why are you so terrified? Be still! ….and there was a great calm.