Why are we driven to distraction? (Or, how do saints keep their cool?)

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Jan 04, 2016

Having just come through a long Christmas week of comparative relaxation and increased reflection, I’ve decided it is time to tell the truth about all the things that make me angry and tense. But let me admit right up front that I am drawing a larger lesson here. I am really talking about all of us. I intend to articulate the following fundamental spiritual principle:

When we are badly “put out”, when we get tense and angry, and when what we really want is to lash out at the people and situations that cause us such distress, then we have indeed met the enemy, and he is us.

It has taken me many years of introspection to discover the truth of this matter, and I am still quite capable of forgetting it. I can still find myself thinking that if only “so and so” would just go away, I’d be much happier. Or if only Father X or Sister Y or Bishop N would stop saying and doing things that undermine the Catholic faith, then I wouldn’t have to live a life of towering rage. Or if Pope Francis would simply speak more carefully and clearly, none of us would have to fear that the Church is on the point of collapse.

But no such luck. It is my sorry lot to be surrounded by idiots!

The blame game

For more years than I like to recall, I had a very tense relationship with a person in my extended circle of family and friends. I found this person to be overbearing and dismissive of the very qualities which I considered most important. The result was that when we were both in the same group, I was constantly tense and could think of little except escape as the prime solution to my negative frame of mind.

I was well into middle age before I began to realize that this seemingly inescapable tension came as much from what was within me as from what was within him. What, I began to ask, is it about me that causes such a strong reaction? What aspect of my own self-image is being challenged? What feature of my own self-worth is being undermined? The preliminary question might be put crudely as follows: Even if this person really is a complete idiot, why should that be so upsetting to me?

What is so frequently at work in situations like this is not a deep concern for the other person, but an excessively emotional attachment to my own peace. Sadly, this is a fairly serious inversion of values, especially for a Christian.

Much the same inversion is at work when I find myself outraged by this or that circumstance in the Church, by the bad example of Catholic leaders, by the carelessness and inconsistencies of bishops and popes. I don’t say that there are no matters to be weighed, no points to be clarified, no errors to be refuted, no larger problems to be parsed and explained. Just as I may be correct in identifying the personality flaws of some acquaintance who upsets me, I may be right in my assessment of the latest deficiency or betrayal among those who ought to know better.

But is it really their fault that my peace is ruined? Is it really their fault that I react with tension, anger, and something that looks suspiciously like panic?

Is anybody home?

Some of these things go very deep. Family relationships can be burdened by past wrongs (real or perceived), including even unintended childhood suffering. Marriages and friendships can be hurt by all kinds of betrayals large and small (again, real or perceived). To take again one personal example, why was I annoyed as a young married man when my wife sometimes preferred to spend her time with friends or family rather than alone with me?

If we examine this one question—which is fairly obviously a question about my own insecurity—we begin to see that our responses frequently lack due proportion. Another person might not even notice some slight behavior pattern which hurts and angers me. In my imagination, I may assign all sorts of evil intentions and consequences to something that, were I more balanced, would not be considered ominous at all!

I admit to being a little slow, but hopefully at some point all of us realize there is something deep inside which tends to make certain kinds of situations much worse than they really are. This “something” and the “situations” on which it operates will differ widely from one person to another. Very frequently, we will not understand what it is that causes us to react as we do.

Sometimes such reactions require professional help. Some few people are even prone to blame only themselves in situations which may in fact be abusive. Most of us, however, direct our frustrations outward. For this reason, the initial breakthrough that we must normally make to continue our spiritual growth is a basic act of recognition. It is the counter-intuitive recognition that a strong element in our reactions arises from our own weaknesses. Let me put it this way: It’s not you; it’s me.

Church matters

To serious Catholics, of course, the Church matters, so it is not hard to see that how things are going in the Church can have a profound impact on our peace of mind. But something of the same problem is often at work in how we react to ecclesiastical situations. For example, a very dear friend expressed great distress that Pope Francis was so incautious and confusing that some acquaintances were seriously thinking about breaking with the Church and aligning themselves with a Traditionalist sect.

In this sort of case, many of us are emotionally tempted to blame Pope Francis (or, similarly, Bishop N, Father X or Sister Y). I certainly would not argue that any of these Church officials or role models is perfect. But even if an ecclesiastical person errs or sins—and surely we must ask whether the sins are not sometimes more perceived than real—is it right to thrust onto that person the blame for our own disordered reactions?

Has someone else really stolen our inner peace, or even our serenity of faith? Do we really think we can catch and punish the culprit? Again, there will always be questions to ask, problems to study and even judgments to be made. But the lesson I have so painfully learned is this: When someone or something threatens my inner peace—whether in personal relations or in matters of faith—the first rule to be applied is that it really isn’t “you”.

This stops Satan in his tracks because we are no longer propelled by an inordinate reaction toward an external target. When we realize that whatever is inordinate in the response comes from “me”, we can open ourselves to grace. This is the truth about our anger, our tension and our panic. It is also how saints remain serene, even under fire.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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  • Posted by: johnk64 - Jan. 06, 2016 1:19 AM ET USA

    Thanks Jeff, good post. The shorter version from Alcoholics Anonymous comes to mind. "It is a spiritual axiom that every time we are disturbed, no matter what the cause, there is something wrong with us."

  • Posted by: loumiamo - Jan. 05, 2016 7:15 AM ET USA

    Puts me in mind of the Scripture I hate the most. And I am not exaggerating here, I HATE this verse, 1 Cor 10:13. "I just couldn't help myself, father, I couldn't resist any longer," can't be used as a valid excuse for sinning, not if we claim to accept all of Scripture. I hate it when that happens. But maybe that's just me. U think?