Gene Van Son: A Short Catechesis Course for Overcoming Anxiety in 2019

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By Gene Van Son, Catholic Stand, 9 January AD 2019

Just about everyone experiences some anxiety from time to time. But today instead of saying we are ‘feeling anxious’ we say we are ‘stressed’ or ‘stressed out.’

It’s okay to feel ‘stressed out’ once in a while. Stress happens.  In 1988 singer/songwriter Bobby McFerrin advised the world not to dwell on it.  In his Grammy Award-winning song he said: “Don’t Worry, Be Happy.” Of course, that’s often easier said than done.

But while it is okay to feel stressed, apparently it’s no longer okay to say ‘I’m feeling anxious.’  And it’s really not okay to say ‘I’m experiencing some anxiety.’ This is because stress is considered a short-term reaction to something, whereas anxiety is now considered a sustained mental health disorder.

If you think this sounds a little bit like psycho-babble you are not alone. ‘Feeling stressed’ is okay but ‘feeling anxious’ means you have a mental health disorder?  Gimme a break.  Stress and anxiety are one in the same.  But what’s more worrisome than such semantic nitpicking is that anxiety seems to be running rampant these days.

Anxiety abounds

According to a recent poll by the American Psychiatric Association, some 69 percent of people say they are equally anxious or more anxious than they were a year ago. And, according to the National Institute of Mental Health, nearly one-third of adolescents and one-fifth of adults suffered from some form of anxiety disorder in the past year. That’s a lot of people with a lot of anxiety.

We can probably blame the internet, 24/7 cable news, social media, the culture, and so on, for all this anxiety. Add up all the ‘inputs’ and the result is that many people today are feeling overwhelmed, perplexed and ‘frozen.’ And for us Catholics, there’s also the Church’s ongoing sex abuse scandal news and a Pope whom some say is long on mercy and a tad short on theology.

But let’s also consider the findings from the latest Pew survey on “Where Americans Find Meaning in Life.” Apparently about 7 out of 10 (69 percent) Americans say they find the most meaning in life spending time with family.  It seems somewhat odd that 7 out of 10 people say they find the most meaning in life spending time with family and at the same time 7 out of 10 people are experiencing as much or more anxiety then they were a year ago.  What’s going on?  Is family life causing the anxiety or are these numbers just a coincidence?  Or is the joy of family life insufficient for overcoming all of life’s stresses?

An Rx for anxiety

Maybe the answer to this riddle is found a bit deeper in the survey results. It turns out that only 4 out of 10 Catholics (and mainline Protestants) say their faith provides them with a great deal of meaning and fulfillment.  Let’s flip that around – 6 out of 10 Catholics and Protestants apparently do not find a great deal of meaning and fulfillment in their faith – almost the same number as those who are feeling anxious and those who find meaning in life spending time with family.  Might this inability to find meaning and fulfillment in one’s faith account for all the anxiety being experienced by so many people?

Family life can be and should be joyous and fulfilling. Yet even in the best of families the stresses/anxieties of everyday life can be pretty impactful.

But if all families were God-centered families the survey numbers might be quite different. If all the members of every family found meaning and fulfillment in their faith and in God, all that anxiety might just go away.  The anxiety might be replaced with joy.

God even tells us to trust in Him and we will find peace and joy, but apparently, 6 out of 10 people haven’t gotten the message. Either that or the evil one has convinced them that he’s got a better idea – that if they trust in themselves rather than God they can create heaven on earth.  But that can’t happen. While God’s Kingdom is everywhere, it is not of this earth.  Heaven on earth will only become a reality after the Second Coming (Revelations 21:1-3).  But the secular progressives and social justice warriors haven’t figured this out yet.

Be happy

One of the messages my wife and I try to impart to the kids in the Faith Formation class we teach is that while all of us are on this earth to love and serve God (the real meaning of life), God really does want us to be happy. After all, what parent wouldn’t want his or her children to be happy?

But we human beings are imperfect and even the best of us sometimes mess up when we become parents. God, however, our all-knowing – omniscient – and perfect Father, does not mess up.  His teaching provides us with everything we need to know, and what we need to do, to be happy while we are on this earth.

The Decalogue (The Commandments)

God gave Moses the 10 Commandments as the guideposts to happiness. The first three commandments tell us to keep God first in everything we do.  The next seven tell us how to interact with each other.  So in the Commandments, we have guideposts that are also the ground rules.  They tell us what we should and shouldn’t do.  The commandments are the heart of God’s Covenant with Moses and His chosen people.

The Beatitudes

When God’s Word was Made Flesh, He made a New Covenant with all mankind.  Jesus teaches us to live the commandments, but He also lays out the complete path to true happiness for us in The Beatitudes.  The Beatitudes tell us how to ‘be’ – thus they are often referred to as ‘Be-Attitudes.’

Be Poor in Spirit, meaning be humble rather than prideful or boastful.

Be Mournful, meaning be sorry for our sins as well as the evil in the world, and be repentant.

Be Meek, meaning be quiet, gentle, reflective, and unassuming; exhibit a true desire to find our place in the world and live our lives according to what God wants for us rather than what we want for ourselves.

Be a person who Hungers and Thirsts for Righteousness, meaning a person who lives according to Divine Law – a person who seeks to be virtuous and holy.

Be Merciful, meaning have and show compassion for others, especially those less fortunate.

Be Clean of Heart, meaning avoid temptation and sin, keep your heart and your soul pure; keep God first in your thoughts and actions.

Be a Peacemaker, meaning be a seeker of peace and tranquillity; do nothing that contributes to discord and strife.

Be Faithful to God and keep His laws, all the time, in all your thoughts and actions, even if you are persecuted for doing so.

In short, we should strive to live virtuous lives.

Being Virtuous

But it’s not easy being virtuous and staying on the true path to happiness because, all along the way, we’re going to be bombarded with a lot of temptation from the devil. He wants to knock us off the path to true happiness.  He tries to convince us that being prideful and self-indulgent [sinful] is a better way to be happy.  He’s always working to tempt us, and in today’s world, thanks to Hollywood, the mass media, and the internet, evil and sin are all around us.

It’s also not easy to be virtuous if we don’t work at it. I tell our 8th graders that we need to become Kung Fu Catholics – we need to develop self-control and live lives of self-discipline.  This is what being virtuous is all about – forming good habits.  God freely gives us graces to help us form good habits, and we receive even more graces by going to Confession and receiving the Eucharist.

Practicing virtuous behavior helps keep us on the path that really does lead to happiness – now and forever.   As the Catechism (CCC)  tells us (1803) “A virtue is a habitual and firm disposition to do the good.”

Virtuous Behavior

Ray Sullivan recently explained the Cardinal and Theological Virtues in an article here at CS, so I won’t go into a lot of detail. But we need to develop and practice these virtues.

The Cardinal Virtues – prudence, justice, temperance, and fortitude – help us as both as individuals and in our relationship with other people. They help us become better people.  But because they are human or moral virtues, they “are acquired by human effort” (CCC 1804).

The Theological Virtues – Faith, Hope and Charity – help us with our relationship with God. They help us become more spiritual people.  But unlike the moral virtues the Theological Virtues are “infused by God into the souls of the faithful” and they “are the pledge of the presence and action of the Holy Spirit in the faculties of the human being” (CCC 1813).

Unfortunately, too many people hear the terms self-control and self-discipline and immediately think ‘that’s doesn’t sound fun.  Whoever had any fun practicing self-control?’  But anyone who thinks this is equating the kind of fleeting ‘happy’ that comes from sin, as opposed to the true happiness and joy that comes from living the kind of life God’s wants us to live.  There are ample opportunities for fun and enjoyment all around us that do not involve sin – sports, games, going to the beach, on a picnic, or to an amusement park, reading a really good book, and so on.

Gifts of the Holy Spirit

Because God is all-knowing, He knows we often need a lot of help in our quest to become virtuous. So when we are baptized we receive the 7 Gifts of the Holy Spirit, which are strengthened in us later when we are Confirmed – Wisdom, Understanding, Counsel, Fortitude, Knowledge, Piety, and Fear of the Lord.

These Gifts are instinctive character traits implanted in us at Baptism and sealed in us at Confirmation. Note the overlap with the Cardinal Virtues.  These gifts are given to us to help us develop virtuous behavior.  Think of them as a kind of performance enhancers – as we practice or exercise virtuous behavior, these gifts strengthen that behavior in us.

The Fruits of the Spirit

The Holy Spirit also implants in us “the first fruits of eternal glory” (CCC 1832) – the Fruits of the Holy Spirit. The tradition of the Church lists 12 of these: charity, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, generosity, gentleness, faithfulness, modesty, self-control, and chastity.

But these fruits are not fully formed fruits. Think of them as seeds. They need to be nurtured if they are going to develop.

Tying it all together

Nurturing the 12 Fruits of the Holy Spirit so they will grow within us takes work and effort. But once these fruits are fully formed fruits within us, we will begin to experience true happiness.  We know this because God tells us this is so.

Once the fruits are developed, we will feel the peace and joy of God’s Kingdom within us. We will know love, kindness, goodness, and gentleness.  We will become patient and full of faith.  We will find it easy to be modest and chaste, and practicing self-control will be no big deal.

There is a synergy that is present here. By keeping God’s Commandments, by living the Beatitudes and practicing the Cardinal and Theological Virtues, and by developing the Gifts of the Holy Spirit, we grow the Fruits of the Holy Spirit within ourselves and we experience these fruits – the happiness of living in the kingdom of God – more and more in our day to day lives.  These fruits, in turn, help us be virtuous, help us keep the Commandments, live the Beatitudes, and so on, which in turn further nurtures the fruits and so on, and so on.  This is a truly synergistic relationship.  But it is also a path that we have to choose.

God’s Plan

God really loves us. His love for us is so great that He gave us the great gift of free will.  He pretty much told us, ‘you can believe and trust in Me, or you can believe in yourselves and go your own way.  It’s up to you.’  So He is leaving it up to us to choose our own path.

One of the big problems in the world is that too many people think they don’t need God at the center of their lives. But if we are truly wise, we will choose God and His plan for us over human pride and, as the Prayer to St. Michael says, “the wickedness and snares of the Devil.”

So rather than letting life’s stresses and anxiety take over, maybe all those anxious folk should start living their lives according to God’s plan for us.

Don’t give in to anxiety

No one knows when the Son of Man will return and Jesus warns us about giving in to anxiety while we wait.

In Luke 12:22, Jesus tells the Apostles, “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life and what you will eat, or about your body and what you will wear.” And then in Luke 12:25-26 he says, “Can any of you by worrying add a moment to your life-span? If even the smallest things are beyond your control, why are you anxious about the rest?”

And as we also heard in Luke 21:34-35, part of the gospel at the beginning of Advent, “Beware that your hearts do not become drowsy from carousing and drunkenness and the anxieties of daily life, and that day catch you by surprise like a trap. For that day will assault everyone who lives on the face of the earth.”

God, our omniscient, perfect, Creator and Father, knows what is best for us.

As Fr. Charles Fox, assistant professor of theology at Sacred Heart Major Seminary, Detroit, noted recently, “. . .  families often become focused on worldly goals, forgetting that their most important purpose is to help each other get to heaven . . . To follow God’s plan is to take the difficult path, but it is the only path that leads to true joy, peace, and fulfillment.