Anxiety and Suffering: Enough for Today
A little rain fell into our lives this week and I have to confess that we didn’t like getting wet. Well, actually, it was mostly worrying about getting wet that we didn’t like. As C. S. Lewis pointed out in The Problem of Pain, anxiety is the great intensifier of human suffering. We dread its coming; we fear it will never leave.
I don’t mean to minimize suffering's immediate distress. Sometimes we can be in severe pain, or in a very difficult position, or even severely disabled. But in the human mind, the more intense question is, “Perhaps I can get through this today, but will I be able to bear it tomorrow?” A very large part of our suffering is psychological. It may not always be controllable, but it is a thing of the mind.
What About Tomorrow?
In His Sermon on the Mount, Our Lord cautioned that we are not to worry. He concluded the beautiful passage on the lilies of the field with these words: “Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Let the day’s own trouble be sufficient for the day.” (Mt. 6:34) There is not a psychologist alive who would disparage the wisdom of these words. Professionals in stress management know, even if we don’t, how much of our stress is caused by tomorrow.
When I was a kid, if one of my friends promised to do something tomorrow, we would laugh and say that tomorrow never comes. Usually, of course, the culprit never intended it to come. This demonstrates (once again) that there are two kinds of people in the world: Those who use tomorrow to avoid worry, and those who use it to breed anxiety. When it comes to suffering, most of us are in the second camp. In this matter we should be eager to learn from those in the first.
Worrying about how things will be tomorrow is called “borrowing trouble”. Notice that I don’t say “worrying needlessly”, for all worry is needless. Worry and concern are not the same, nor are worry and planning. Though it is often difficult, human beings are capable of addressing difficult issues without chewing over them. For example, one is reminded of Sir Francis Drake’s famous game of bowls on Plymouth Hoe in Devon in 1588. When lookouts brought word that the Spanish Armada had been sighted in the English Channel, Drake knew that the tide was against him and replied: “We have time to finish the game.”
But unlike Drake we borrow trouble, and this habit colors not only our outlook but our behavior. It makes us unhappy, which in turn makes us preoccupied, nettlesome, and frequently snappish. Surely it is one of the more important projects of the spiritual life that we should gradually grow in our ability to live Christ’s words, “Let the day’s own troubles be sufficient for the day.” This takes prayer, reflection, self-discipline and practice.
As with any human virtue, most of us can make progress in this area through ordinary means, but some will need special help. There are people who carry the cross of constant worry, or chronic anxiety. For these, apart from miraculous healing, spiritual counsel will be insufficient by itself. They will need the assistance of stress professionals. But it is worth noting here that these professionals appear to be less and less prone to prescribe medication and more and more prone to employ what is called cognitive therapy.
The theory of cognitive therapy is an extension of a spiritual principle, rooted in the nature of man, by which reasonably healthy persons can exercise a good deal of control over how they think about things. Using certain techniques along with disciplined practice over an extended period of time, those who are suffering from anxiety can alter their mental habits and gradually learn to interact with life from a new and more fruitful point of view. The simplified religious counterpart to this is found in the way prayer shapes our beliefs: Lex orandi, lex credendi. It is because man has a spiritual nature that he can direct even his habits of thought.
Body and Soul
Psychology thrives at the intersection of body, mind and soul. No two people experience the same suffering in the same way. All of us know people who bear significant afflictions without losing their essential happiness, while we become distressed over trifles. People perceive their troubles in widely divergent ways, and clearly these differences in perception depend on such things as how the body reacts physically, how the mind deals with the difficulty at hand, and how the soul engages itself spiritually with the problem.
Apart from those who need special help, the spiritual component is probably the most important. The more we learn to trust in God, the less we worry; the less we worry, the less we suffer. It is no surprise that religious people describe themselves as happier, live longer, and recover from illness more frequently than those who are not religious. The statistics probably can't be pushed far enough to make a foolproof case for conversion, but the trend is there. Quite apart from God’s intervention, the sheer reduction in stress through trust in God is a boon to health and contentment.
The difficulty, of course, is that when we’re stressed, we perceive our happiness as depending on a satisfactory resolution of whatever it is we’re stressed about. The whole thing is circular. I’m unhappy because this or that problem is a critical problem. Therefore I cannot be happy until it is resolved to my satisfaction. It takes a certain initial measure of maturity and detachment to say, instead, “No, I’m mostly unhappy because I’m so upset about this.” Once we put it this way, we more easily realize the embarrassing truth: We are unhappy in large part because we are allowing ourselves to be unhappy.
When we understand this fundamental truth about ourselves, we are poised to take far greater advantage of Our Lord’s commentary on anxiety in the Sermon on the Mount. Let’s close by reading the entire passage:
But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is alive and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you, O men of little faith? Therefore do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the Gentiles seek all these things; and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things shall be yours as well. Therefore, do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Let the day’s own trouble be sufficient for the day.
If you want to be a happier and more joyful person, start here.
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