It Is What It Is

Here’s a thought that attacks me all the time: I’m not doing enough. I should be spending more time with my mother; I should spend more one-on-one time with the kids; I should be praying better, and more often; I should be able to handle a long day without losing it; I should be able to manage without having my husband step in and rescue me all the time.

At first, I tried to counter this thought by arguing against it. I would tell myself that I really was doing enough; or I would say that yes, it wasn’t enough, but I had good excuses, and I would do better later. Neither of these worked; I couldn’t convince myself that I was giving my all, but I couldn’t realistically see myself doing more, either. I used to torture myself with the thought that I was not actually trying my best, because there were some moments–a lot or a few, it didn’t matter–when I was not trying as hard as I could have. This led to a vicious cycle of self-pity and self-accusation: I knew I could theoretically try harder, but even with my current minimum of effort I was a mess; so what was I supposed to do?

Here’s the answer: it is what it is. The fact is, you are not doing all you could possibly do. It could always be better. But here’s an equally important fact: just because you should, ideally, be doing something, doesn’t mean that it’s possible. Yes, I should be spending more time with my mother; but the fact is, I just can’t. For so many reasons, I can’t. This means that, given the situation, thinking about what I should or could be doing is irrelevant. It is what it is. Give yourself a break: this isn’t an excuse, it’s just reality. There are enough things to worry about without wasting your energy on things you can’t change.

(I had this insight while I was in therapy, not so much from my therapists, but from the thought processes they helped me start. I’ve found that this is the best thing about a good therapist; she doesn’t give you the answers so much as ask the right questions, and guide you to answer them yourself. I know, this sounds like a cop-out; but if you’ve ever tried sitting down by yourself and thinking about why you do a certain thing, or what part of your life needs to change, I bet you didn’t get very far. Having to do it out loud, in front of someone, really helps you kickstart the process!)

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Only Heaven

I like to sing hymns to my babies at night: they make nice lullabies, and they’re a good shot in the arm for an exhausted mama.  Tonight I was singing “…and I will raise you up, and I will raise you up, and I will raise you up on the last day,” and I thought sure–on the very last possible day.  I’m not trying to be funny here.  Sometimes it feels like God waits until the last minute.

My mother’s Alzheimer’s is progressing terrifyingly fast, and every morning she suffers through an attack of spiritual doubt and misery.  This morning she told me “everyone keeps talking about mercy…all about mercy….”  She couldn’t finish her sentence, but I thought I caught the implication: where’s the mercy for me?  I didn’t know what to tell her.  I believe in God’s mercy on the last day, but I don’t know why, for some people, He doesn’t send it earlier.  Where is the mercy in my brilliant, wise, eloquent mother spending the last ten years of her life in confusion and humiliation?

I know I’m missing something here.  I know–I believe–that a life of hardship can have more joy and peace than just the promise of heaven.  But I don’t see it right now.

Sometimes a crumb falls
from the tables of joy,
sometimes a bone
is flung.

To some people
love is given,
to others
only heaven

–“Luck” by Langston Hughes

Uncluttering your Mind

Dishes, Dishwasher, Dirty, Kitchen, Housework, Dish

My mother once said, “being rich won’t make you happy, but being poor can sure make you unhappy.”  I don’t have much to add to this succinct truth, except that I’m discovering it’s true for a lot of things besides money.  In my efforts at detachment and mental peace, I often tell myself that a clean house (or a better schedule, or a better organizing system, etc.) won’t really make me happier, and so it’s pointless to get anxious about them.  But what I’m finding out is that a clean house doesn’t make me happier, but it does take away a big occasion for me to be sad.  When I look around a cluttered or chaotic room, all the unfinished chores and things out of place automatically stress me out.  But when I look around a clean room, all I think is “what a nice room,” and I’m free to go on to other things.  Even the simple visual is important; things piled on top of each other in my house create metaphorical piles of worries in my mind, and an open and clean room clears my mind.

If you’re someone who’s prone to anxiety or depression, it’s okay to make your life easier.  You’re not necessarily trying to find happiness through making more money, or buying nice things for the house, or cleaning up; you’re just taking away things that make it easier for you to be sad.

Attitude of Heart

A quick review of a spiritual self-help book that has meant a lot to me.  (I’ve also written about this book here.)  God kept putting this book in my path, through various recommendations and offhand mentions, until my sister sent me a copy out of the blue and I finally read it.  These days it’s one of those books I give to people so often that I like to keep an extra copy on hand.  (This post ran in its original form on Simcha Fisher’s blog.)

Searching for and Maintaining Peace: A Small Treatise on Peace of Heart by Fr. Jacques Philippe

searching for an maintaining peace

This is a small, extremely easy-to-read little book, written in a gentle and tender tone.  At first glance it seems to offer the kind of cliche spiritual advice that is hard to take to heart, but it is actually full of extremely practical advice about breaking destructive mental habits.

Fr. Philippe begins by dismantling the subtle temptation to fight the “wrong battle,” which he describes as the misplaced desire to attain peace by conquering all of our faults and all of the external obstacles to peace.

…if we expect peace…because everything is going well…and our desires are completely satisfied, …then it is certain that we will never know peace or that our peace will be extremely fragile and of short duration.

This is a double temptation–to doubt God’s mercy on our sins, and to doubt his ability or desire to aid us in our troubles.  Both lead to despair–either despair of salvation, or despair of any happiness and peace in this world.  If instead we contemplate Christ’s love for us, embodied in the Cross, we will gain the confidence we need to survive our trials, whether they go away or not.  Fr. Philippe describes his own peace after adoration, not as a feeling that conditions are going to improve, but as an “attitude of heart:”

The external situation was always the same, there were always problems to solve, but the heart had changed, and from then on, I could confront them peacefully.

Here’s a prayer upon making a decision, which demonstrates how effectively Fr. Philippe cuts through mental confusion and scrupulosity:

‘Lord, I have thought about it and prayed to know Your will.  I do not see it clearly, but I am not going to trouble myself any further.  I am not going to spend hours racking my brain….I know well that, even if I am mistaken, You will not be displeased with me, for I have acted with good intentions.  And if I have made a mistake, I know that You are able to draw good from this error….’  And I remain at peace.

One last snippet, which is explained further but makes a good mantra all by itself:

The reasons why we lose our peace are always bad reasons.

First Aid for an Existential Crisis: Part 2

Please see part 1 here.

The pictures in the Baltimore Catechism say it all.

Did you ever try to talk yourself out of sadness or depression by “counting your blessings”?  I don’t mean to disparage this important exercise in gratitude, but it doesn’t usually work for me.  For one thing, I may be in the kind of mental state mentioned in Part 1, where external blessings seem irrelevant; or I may be in such a difficult stage of life that it seems impossible to find blessings meaningful enough to outweigh my troubles.  But the core of the problem is that even when I do feel blessed and happy, it doesn’t always reassure me of God’s love.  Where was he when I was unhappy?  Where is he when others are suffering?

Fr. Jacques Phillipe, in his short and wonderful book Searching for and Maintaining Peace, gently reminds us not to lean on our blessings–or lack thereof–to answer the question of God’s love.  Because happiness is so fleeting, we must place the source of our peace in something deeper, something that remains true beneath the cycle of sorrow and joy.  He later asserts that peace can only be found in contemplation of the Cross; but I never understood what that meant until now.  (I hope to post more fully on Fr. Phillipe’s book later this week!)

Here, as far as I can figure it out, is the answer: God proves his love for us by sending his Son to save us from Hell.  Everything else is extra.  We don’t have to rely on mental contortions to try to justify the apparent imbalance of God’s blessings; instead, we can rest assured that the only truly necessary thing–salvation–is given to everyone. Dayenu.

This also helps me deal with the paradox of the Bible’s promises.  How can God promise peace, happiness, prosperity, and freedom from fear to the just man, when we see good people suffer all the time?  These promises only make sense when they are interpreted in the light of eternity.  They do not promise peace and happiness according to earthly definitions, but heavenly ones. I think this must be the secret to the serenity and happiness of the saints even in the face of torture and martyrdom.

Most mornings I pray the Canticle of Zechariah, which contains a long list of God’s promises to

save us from our enemies…to show mercy…to set us free…to worship him without fear…to shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death, and to guide our feet into the way of peace. (Luke 1:68-79)

Usually I find this comforting, but sometimes it is very hard to believe.  I know so many people who are at the mercy of their enemies and feel no peace.  But as I read the Canticle more closely, I noticed that it provides a specific answer to this problem: God will “give his people knowledge of salvation by the forgiveness of their sins.”  The shadow of death may be more present at some times than at others, but in this life it will always be there.  The only remedy, the knowledge of salvation, is guaranteed to us by Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross.  This is the certainty we were looking for at the beginning.

The next time you find yourself in the valley of the shadow of death, I pray that God will send you comfort and aid.  But if he doesn’t, remind yourself that, although you have nowhere else to go, everything you really need to prove God’s love and to bring you ultimate happiness is already there.