A Meditation on Being Overwhelmed

May 12 Blog PostThe first video at the bottom of this post presents a portrait of a man who is simply overwhelmed. He can’t seem to live up to expectations, neither those that are self-imposed nor those that are imposed by others.

One of the paradoxes of our time (at least in the West) is that we have so many creature comforts yet in many ways have never been so uncomfortable. Our high standard of living is accompanied by stress, worry, and a gnawing dissatisfaction. It seems that the more we have the more we worry.

In a way, we have too much to lose; we want and expect so much that we’re never satisfied. There is a kind of slavery that comes with having many possessions. If we’re not careful our possessions end up possessing us! Further, they set loose desires in us that can become extreme and difficult to master. In the end our desires expand with each new thing we get. It’s like a man who overeats; his stomach stretches so that he must eat more each time in order to feel full. Scripture says,

Whoever loves money never has money enough; whoever loves wealth is never satisfied with his income. … 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 an advertisement for Traveler’s Insurance that well depicts how our possessions cause us worry and make us restless. Of course, they claim that if you’ll just buy their insurance, all your worries will vanish! Nevertheless, it is a cute and poignant ad.

Yes, these two videos depict our times very well.

I believe that one of the deepest sources of stress today is the false notion that you can have it all: the well-appointed house in the suburbs, two fulfilling careers, well-raised children, etc.

But this is a lie. You cannot have it all. We all have to make choices. Life involves trade-offs. Choosing one thing often means saying no to other things. A father can’t necessarily climb the career ladder rapidly yet still be reasonably present to his wife and children. The big house in the suburbs isn’t always an acceptable option if it means a long commute, additional time away from the family, and/or a large mortgage that requires overtime and/or a second job. Buying all the latest gadgets isn’t wise if it means being unable to save for the children’s education or for retirement.

We simply can’t have it all. We have to decide what is important and make choices that reflect our priorities.

But as it is, we often want too much and on top of that, we want it right away. We entertain the notion that somehow we can have it all. This attitude then fuels unrealistic expectations. Not only do I believe I can I have it all, I think that I should have it all. And if I don’t have it all, then I’m either resentful, or I’m worried that I don’t measure up to other people’s unrealistic expectations. There’s an old saying that goes, “Most of us spend money we don’t have, to 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 then build your life around that. It’s going to mean that some other things have to go. If your family is your top priority, then you may not be able to accept that promotion if it means spending significantly less time at home. Some people do choose to wholly dedicate themselves to some work or cause. That’s fine. But someone who does make that choice should think twice about getting married (and having children).

And as for possessions, my advice is to simplify. It is far better to live in a smaller house in a less prestigious neighborhood and actually be able to know your spouse and children, than to live in the big house on the hill that requires long hours at work to pay for and is filled with anger over your absence and anxiety about money.

Scripture 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. But that’s not true. Psalm 86:11 says, Make simple my heart, O Lord (Simplex fac cor meum Domine). Ask the Lord to help you to desire what is good and then to build your life around that. You can’t have it all. You have to decide. Life involves trade-offs.

We must learn this deeply. If we don’t, we should expect to be overwhelmed and owned by what we claim to possess. Yes, a simple heart is a gift to pray for.

Here is a remarkable portrait of modern man: overwhelmed, anxious, fearful that he does not measure up to the unrealistic expectations of the world, yet unable to decide what is really important.

3 Replies to “A Meditation on Being Overwhelmed”

  1. All too true. I’ve tried to make the break multiple times. To date, the Immaculata has seen fit to keep me embedded in Mordor.

    I’ve considered this dilemma innumerable times on the slug into work, or the lengthy drive into old St. Mary’s for a Mass you preside at in the evening, Msgr.

    However, there are other elements that play into the picture. The scam of modern socioeconomics, local demographics, and vocation. Any devout Catholic who has any inkling of prudential judgement will feel a strong impulse for the bucolic life after a week of slugging it out in the office. However, modernity/chance/economics/consumerism/unhinged capitalism… has made it so that two parents need to work to put food on the table and pay bills. To my mind, it’s near demonic. We are single income in DC. I peg poverty line as the point at which you don’t have to swipe your credit card to survive. With a family in DC/NOVA, that’s $90k. That narrows ones options for the type of job and work hours. Want to make less money to spend more time with the faamily and live in a cheaper house? You’re living 2 hours commute away. You’ve just been defeated by Mordor. 4 hour commute to try to gain time and live cheaper. Ok. So, Msgr Pope’s article hits home and now you want to live closer to work in order to spend more time with family and at church. Congrats. You now have a $450k+ mortgage for a home that costs $200k 2 hours away. You don’t WANT the promotion. You NEED the promotion. Throw in tuition for independent Catholic school of the traditional strain because you can’t even trust current diocesan schools to teach doctrinal education….well, it is a sad, hair pulling, vicious, sick, near demonic cycle.

    “Ahhh,” says the well meaning observer.”But who says you need to stay in the big city? Get a small town job and live life as God intended.”

    I pray for that gift, most everyday, but think that through to its logical conclusion. The pews of St. Mary’s become empty. I would venture to say that nearly every young family that attends the Latin Mass there is in a similar quandary. We all make sacrifices and drive dinged up 12 passenger vans to keep mom at home with the kids and provide a catholic upbringing and education, but we suffer the white martyrdom of working for the modern Man. Or Beast?

    If all those faithful Catholics in high pressure positions were to pull up chocks to chase the simple life, the urban pews would be empty and our nation would lose well-positioned, devout and faithful Catholics in some highly influential positions within national policy and service. Were Jospeh (Egypt), Moses, holy popes, etc. faced with the similar dilemma of just wanting to get away from it all to focus on the simple, humble life only to have God say, “no”? I dunno. Maybe it’s false delusions of grandeur on my part (“what will God do without me?”) However, I know parish priests who plead with God to be led to a monastery and a more pastoral life, away from administrative purgatory of managing schools and endless admin burdens placed on them by the diocese.

    I’m not saying your wrong… just that there’s not a clear path out for some in the modern world. 50+ years ago, there were options. Now?…
    If you know of a stable position that can support a family of 7 on a small homestead in NOVA, I’m there today! In Christ 🙂

  2. This has been my problem for a very long time. Anytime I read your posts, I always have something to challenge me. Thank You, Msgr. Charles, you’re inspiring one whose being is set on co-operating with his God. May God bless you more for this. Amen.

  3. I see our kids being overwhelmed at school, too. They want to do sports, music, clubs, AP classes, Honors classes, community service, jobs, etc. etc. because they think it is expected of them if they want to get into some “great” college. They think they have to have perfect smiles, hair, bodies, skin, clothes. Go on trips, go to parties… As a teacher and mother, I have seen many overwhelmed students.

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