Chaplain's Corner Short essays written for the La Jolla Veteran's Hospital newsletter in La Jolla, California
Do you notice that many times when looking for the causes of unhappiness, people frequently believe it is other individuals or external events that make them distressed? The idea is carried around that if these “outside forces,” as psychologist Albert Ellis (1962) calls them, were different, all their problems would go away and they would not be so miserable. Accompanying this outlook is the idea that, because it is just these nefarious persons or events over which they have no control which produce their wretchedness, they cannot help but be upset. Instead of working at the problem they are capable of solving, or devolving meaning in what they are able to accomplish, they feel they are justified in wallowing in their misery.
Obviously there are events that are realistically hurtful. Someone in the military who is permanently injured in battle, or a civilian who suffers lasting physical debilitation in an accident certainly are two common examples. In such cases there are two options, accept, but not condone, the untoward injury-causing event move on coping with the situation and creating a meaningful life in the face of the injury, or do as many do with non-realistic events, wallow in misery.
Even in cases of realistic harm, however, acceptance of the event and then finding meaning in the rest of life is still the better option than indulging in sorrow. Events based on reality cannot be changed. Reactions based on erroneous interpretations of these events and the blaming of others, can be changed. It is better to have one problem instead of two. The second problem is something that can be eliminated. It is a matter of focus. One can focus and bemoan on what one has realistically lost or focus on what resources and skills one now has and which can be used in some meaningful way. (Morelli, 2006). Furthermore we can follow the counsel found in the Talmud: “Improve yourself, and only afterwards, try to improve others.” (http://www.wisdomofjudaism.org/samplechapters2.html)
We can recall the words of Jesus to His disciples on the deleterious effects of useless regret: “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). This is to say, deal with the real problem, do not be deflected by placing blame on others or being distracted by what is to come. Do not make excuses. Jesus was disapproving of those who made excuses. St. Luke recounts Jesus’ parable of the Banquet Feast. The response of those invited to the banquet: “But they all alike began to make excuses I pray you, have me excused.” (Lk 14: 18) The consequences for making excuses is spiritually unfavorable. Jesus continues: “For I tell you, none of those men who were invited shall taste my banquet” (Luke 14: 24).
The Holy Fathers of the Eastern Church understood the words of Jesus in just this way. St.. John of the Ladder (579 AD-649 AD), (1982) writes: “Fear is danger tasted in advance, a quiver as the heart takes fright before unnamed calamity. Fear is a loss of assurance.” St. Maximus the Confessor (580 - 662 AD) likewise had a perspicacious view of not dealing with problems and being distracted by other events. He tells us “ an evil which is expected in the future is called fear, and one which is experienced in the present is called distress [one striving to be a good Christian], on the other hand remains dispassionate in the face of such evils, since he has united himself with God and is detached from all that happens in this present life.” (Philokalia II,). Elsewhere, St. Maximus points out, such dispassion allows one to focus on one’s true realistic work. Instead of playing the blame game we can, along with the apostle St. James, rely on God and let this assurance be “ completed by works ” (James 2:22).
Ellis, A. (1962). Reason and Emotion in Psychotherapy. Secaucus, NJ: Lyle Stuart.
Morelli, G. (2006, July 29). Dealing With Brokenness in the World: Learned Psychological Optimism and the Virtue of Hope. http://www.orthodoxytoday.org/articles6/MorelliBrokenness.php.
Palmer, G.E.H., Sherrard, P. & Ware, K. (trans.) (1981). The Philokalia ; The Complete Text (Volume 2):. London: Faber and Faber.
St. John of the Ladder (1982). John Climacus: The Ladder of Divine Ascent (The Classics of Western Spirituality) (The Classics of Western Spirituality). NY: Paulist Press.