Sunday, August 30, 2015

Being overwhelmed and stultified

This is one of my "on-the-fly" observations on a subject that has been on my mind a good deal lately. In our contemporary world communication is instantaneous. As we witnessed with the earthquake in Haiti, the demonstrations in Egypt, and many other instances people can Tweet, or post to Facebook, Instagram, etc. what is happening as it happens from just about anywhere in the world. And so we are more aware than ever before of what is going on throughout the world without the media filtering our access to events. In many ways this is a good thing. In some ways it is not so good. This awareness threatens to overwhelm us and tends to overburden us. I don't know about you, but I upon hearing about certain things, I have the urgent feeling I need to do something. But when I consider what I might do, apart from posting something indignant on social media, or blogging about it, I am at loss. It usually amounts to providing some financial support to a worth group that is already engaged.

We have become awfully fond of saying or typing "That is a first world problem." Indeed, some of gripes and perceived indignities are not really very significant either in and of themselves or in light of what many of our fellow human beings face on a daily basis. Pope Francis was quite right to point out the gross immorality of wasting food when many people on the planet are starving, or doing what we can in our lives, in our homes, our yards, our neighborhoods, to be good stewards of the good earth God has given us.

While we need to be aware of what is going on in the world and respond appropriately, we need to understand that what we can personally do is really quite limited. In all honesty, what you can do to, say, stop ISIS, is quite paltry. We have to recognize, this reality as painful as it is. But we also need to grasp that living in the developed world, living in a Western country, has its own legitimate perils, which are indeed first world problems, which makes them, not trivial, but all the more grave and perplexing.

Clearly we live in culture that is in many ways spiritually and psychologically devastating, even if physically comfortable. Besides, like most people on planet earth, I can only live the life that I have, the life I have been given. I can't conjure up a different life and make it happen, at least not in a morally responsible manner. The more commitments we have vis-à-vis marriage and family, the less latitude we have to make radical lifestyle choices.

Spiritual poverty is the worst kind of poverty. That may sound outrageous in a world in which so many suffer from abject material want, which, again, we need to be interested in and engaged to the extent we can in alleviating. The spiritual poverty of the society I inhabit is stultifying to me. I choose the word "stultifying" deliberately. In the first instance to be stultified is "to lose enthusiasm and initiative, especially as a result of a tedious or restrictive routine." This brings up the need for us to come up with creative ways of engaging our spiritually desolate culture lest it overtakes us.

In my view, a leading cause of our spiritual poverty is that we're often too global at the expense of being local. We lack fully human communities, ones in which we engage each other in person and work for the common good of those among whom we live, seeking to solve local problems locally. Trust me, you don't have to go to a Third World country to find people who need help of various kinds. Maybe it's something as simple as visiting a neighbor who lives alone and who doesn't seem to have any family, or having that person to your house for supper, to give just one example.

Life with Christ, if it truly is life with Christ, is never tedious or, believe it or not, restrictive. It exciting and free. As the Catechism teaches- "The more one does what is good, the freer one becomes. There is no true freedom except in the service of what is good and just. The choice to disobey and do evil is an abuse of freedom and leads to 'the slavery of sin'" (1733). This is one of those teachings that you shouldn't take anyone's word for. Why? Because it's something you can verify in reality through experience.

As Bob Dylan sang, "Gotta Serve Somebody." You serve where you are, in the circumstances in which you find yourself, not by imagining or wishing you were somewhere else. A good deal of the time all our social media advocacy amounts to nothing more than tilting at windmills. The question we need to ask ourselves each day is, Have I fully lived the circumstances in which I found myself today? This is where the ancient practice of the Examen is so valuable. After all, it was our Lord Himself who taught us, "Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Sufficient to the day is its own trouble" (Matt 6:4).


  1. That is what is beautiful about La Patrona women in Mexico. They saw the freight train roaring through their town loaded with desperate, hungry people. And in response, they began to meet those travelers with food and water, and hope.


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