it Over, Keep it Simple:
A Guide to Managing Stress
by Father Paul Keenan
Donít tell anybody, but I like to eavesdrop. Not that
Iím nosy or enjoy minding other peopleís business;
itís just plain fun listening to what other people
think about, what they discuss, and how they handle
situations. I find that through eavesdropping I learn a
great deal about human nature.
Iím an amateur eavesdropper, not a professional
one. I donít go about snooping into other peopleís
private lives. To me, the fun of eavesdropping comes
when Iím not trying to find something out, but rather
when it comes to me entirely on its own. Especially in
this age of omnipresent cell phones, it is nearly
impossible not to listen in on conversations; but train
platforms, trains themselves, buses, subways, shopping
malls and grocery stores are also wonderful places to
This kind of freelance eavesdropping allows me to
observe rather offbeat and unusual tendencies in human
nature. For example, itís interesting to hear how
people respond to the questions, "How are
you?" or "Howís it going?" After a bit
of listening in, I began to hear one word emerge more
than any other. The word was "crazy." "Itís
been really crazy at work." "I have a crazy
class schedule this semester." "The commute is
really crazy." "Parking at the mall was
absolutely crazy." Interestingly enough, I seldom
heard people describe themselves or other people as
crazy, in these scenarios. Craziness Ė which really
belongs primarily to people Ė had been objectified and
depersonalized into a thing located outside of the
personal. Work was crazy, home was crazy, school was
crazy, "it" was crazy. However, beneath all of
this there lay the unspoken cry, "I am going
crazy with all of this stress."
I heard it over and over again; and, to my amazement,
I even heard myself saying it at times. It seemed that
"crazy" had become normal.
Itís not much of an exaggeration to say that these
days almost everybody is stressed beyond belief.
"Stressed out" is our usual way of saying it.
Especially in a year that has included September 11,
numerous corporate scandals, countless layoffs, church
scandals and a wildly fluctuating stock market. You
literally gasp for air as you watch the evening news.
Especially if whatís on the evening news tells you, in
effect, that it is going to be harder for you to make
- The opposite of "crazy" is
"sane"; and "sane" means knowing who
you are and being in touch with reality. Somewhere on a
web site once, I read a quotation by Jane Wagner that
said, "Reality is the leading cause of stress
amongst those in touch with it." Thatís a perfect
quote for an age in which "crazy" has become
an acceptable synonym for "reality."
- Stress seems to be everywhere, and more and more of
us feel like weíre drowning. What can we do about it?
Before I delve into that question, let me add a
foreword. One way to go in an article like this would be
to make the perfectly valid observation that certain
kinds of stress are vital to the creative process. The
stress on a violin string renders sweet music. Tension
on elevator cables is part of what makes it possible for
us to go from floor to floor. Some stress is very good.
I donít want to go there in this essay, because I donít
want to maintain that the kind of stress many of us are
under today is positive or tributary to happy, creative
living. The stress we are under is not positive; it is
what makes us "crazy." We need some guidance
as to what we can do about it.
So, what can we do?
Like so many other things in life, the problem of
stress is basically a question of determining what is
true and what is false. And always, the question of what
is true and what is false comes down to the question of
what reality is, what being is, and who we are in the
scheme of it all.
The first account of creation in the Book of Genesis
has come to be one of my favorite passages in the Bible.
I find myself returning to it again and again,
particularly in times of stress, for a refreshing
remembrance of how things were in the beginning; of how
things have always been, really; and of how they truly
are in the present moment.
Reflecting on that scriptural account of creation, I
am struck not only by the richness and abundance of life
that I find there, but also by something that is
missing. What is missing, I find, is any reference to
diffidence, angst and stress. Step by step, day by day,
God is portrayed as producing the various elements of
creation with tremendous ease and effortlessness. The
pattern at each stage is that God formulates a thought,
an idea of what he wants to create, and then he creates
it. And once he creates it, he sees and declares that it
Ease and effortlessness are the hallmarks. Never
do we find any sign of nervousness or lack of confidence
on the part of God. Not even once is there any sign of
divine apprehension. Nowhere, for example, do we find
God saying, "Well, Iíd really like to create the
sun and the moon now, but Iím not sure. Iíve never
done this before, and I donít know what it would be
like to do it. What if I made it and it werenít right?
What if I donít like it? What if, down the road when I
make man, he doesnít like the sun and the moon that I
have created? Gosh, I donít know Ė maybe I should
think this over a bit more before I do it." We
almost laugh out loud to think of God engaging in any
such self-talk. Of course, there is none of that. God
conceives of what he wants to make, and he does it with
certainty and immediacy. And he sees that it is good.
Itís also true that in that creation account, we
never find God regretting anything that he has made.
"Wow, thatís not a very good sun. I must be
having a bad day. I ought to be able to do better than
that." Not at all. God sees that everything he
makes is good and very good. And so it is.
In short, there is a complete absence of self-imposed
stress in the divine act of creation. Ease and
effortlessness are at the core of being Ė reality Ė
"Well, thatís all very good of course," a
devilís advocate might say, "if youíre
God. But what if youíre a mere mortal? God doesnít
have to worry about making mistakes. What does it matter
to him if somebody comes along and doesnít like what
he has made? If youíre God, you get to make up the
rules. All you have to do is declare what you made to be
good; and if somebody else doesnít happen to like it,
youíre more powerful than he is, so what does it
matter? Youíre right Ė God has no reason to be
stressed. But we are stressed. Weíre not
powerful enough not to be." Itís an argument we
make all the time. We love to argue in behalf of the
stress in our lives, as much as we claim to wish it
werenít there. We have come to accept the fact that
stress is an ordinary and normal part of our lives.
"Itís life," we say.
What that comes down to, is a belief that stress is
real and its absence is an illusion. Even to put it that
way tells us something. That sentence Ė which
represents how most of us tend to think Ė implies that
stress is something positive and that, well, whatever it
is you call whatever lack of stress would be, is a
What that amounts to, in turn, is arguing for
And the thing is, by arguing for appearances, we get
to keep them. Richard Bach said something akin to that
in his book, Illusions; and itís true. We frame
our view of life in terms of a logical syllogism,
although we generally donít realize what weíre
doing. The syllogism goes something like this.
Major Premise: Life is necessarily stressful.
Minor Premise: I am a participant in life.
Conclusion: Therefore, my life is necessarily
The first account of creation in the Book of Genesis
tackles that major premise head on. Is all life
necessarily stressful? If God is the supreme instance of
what it means to be, and we donít see any stress in
God as he creates the universe, then is it really true
that life is necessarily stressful? Especially if weíre
made in his image and likeness? The first creation
account suggests to us that there might just be a
different way of viewing being and life.
"Get real," our devilís advocate retorts.
"Thereís plenty of stress in the Bible. Look at
the second account of creation. God makes man, and tells
him not to eat the fruit of the tree. He eats it anyway,
and from then on thereís tension between man and God.
Cain murders Abel. The Pharaoh enslaves Godís people,
and it takes a series of horrendous plagues before heís
convinced to let them go. Godís people are forever
worshipping false gods and they are taken captive in
Babylon. God sends prophets, and time and again theyíre
killed. In the New Testament, Jesus meets almost daily
opposition to his teachings, and is put to death on the
cross. The Acts of the Apostles and the various epistles
repeatedly attest to the fact that the followers of
Jesus were in constant fear of losing safety and life.
The Bible is the perfect witness to the fact that even
God, his Son and his followers canít get away from
Thatís one way of looking at it, of course. But to
me, itís even more powerfully arguable that the story
of Bible Ė both the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament
Ė reveals that God is constantly inviting his people
to turn to him rather than to all of the stress-mongers,
and in their relationship with him to find refreshment
and rest. "He refreshes my soul," is how the
twenty-third psalm puts it. "Return, O Israel, to
the Lord your God," God tells his people through
the prophet Hosea (Hosea 14:2). "Come to me all you
who are weary and heavy-laden," says Jesus,
"and I will give you rest" (Matthew 11:28).
Perhaps this point of view is best summed up in the
divine command, "Be still, and know that I am
God" (Psalm 46:10).
The Bible, it seems to me, doesnít claim that there
is necessarily something wrong with us if we experience
stress in our lives. It does tell us that there is
something wrong if we allow ourselves to believe that
stress is our fundamental condition, and that it is all
we can hope for. It challenges the belief that life is,
at the core, stressful, which is the major premise of
the argument we tend to construct when faced with the
strains of life.
But the proof of all this high-flying logic is in the
pudding. What can we do when we are faced with seemingly
unbearable stress in our lives?
One thing we can do is to detect the erroneous
syllogism mentioned above, as it shows up in our
thinking. When faced with stress, most of us retreat to
panic and fear. That panic and fear are what allows the
false major premise ("Life is necessarily
stressful.") to take over our thought processes.
Just because we are experiencing an overwhelming amount
of stress does not mean that stress is of the
essence of life. What it means is that we are
experiencing stress from a number of sources in our
lives. What can we do when stressful situations seem to
gang up on us?
The secret is simplicity. Even if we find ourselves
unable to resolve every single one of the stressful
problems, it is possible that we can remove or reduce
the stress overall.
Recently, during a visit to the veterinarian with my
kitty Lionel, I watched how the doctor came to her
diagnosis. It was a process that was logical and
deliberately simple. Lionel was having a problem
supporting himself Ė his rear legs had become very
weak. The examination revealed diabetes, a heart murmur,
some deterioration of the bone in the legs, and a
condition called Cushingís disease, in which the body
produces excessive hormone. Ultimately, the vet decided
to begin by testing for underlying causes of the Cushingís
Syndrome, which at this writing we are in the process of
What fascinated me, in addition to the enormous
expense of veterinary medicine these days, was something
that the doctor said in explaining her conclusions to
me. "In treating cats," she told me, "we
try to treat one illness rather than a host of
illnesses." In other words, where there are
multiple illnesses in a cat, itís better to determine
which is the leading illness and treat that. Sometimes
treating one successfully will eliminate the others,
sometimes not. But successful medicine, she said, means
picking one disease as the lead one to treat.
That made sense to me; and, since I was writing this
article on stress at the time, it occurred to me that
this was also a good way of treating stress in life.
Seldom do we experience one and only one stressful
element. We may have money problems, a sick parent, a
tense situation at work, a long and tiring commute, an
unfriendly neighbor, personal depression, a rebellious
child, and on and on Ė all at the same time. Part of
the stress lies in feeling overwhelmed by all of the
stresses, feeling that we cannot handle them and
panicked that the sum of them is going to eat us alive.
We feel trapped in our stress, unable to get out.
Apart from withdrawing into alcohol or drugs, binge
eating and excessive escape television watching, what
can we do? Following the veterinarianís logic, we can
take a breather for some reflection and ask ourselves,
"Is there one of these stresses the treatment of
which might result in a reduction of all or some of the
others, and in a general improvement in my life?"
The answer will likely differ for each person. Letís
suppose that the one that comes to mind is the money
issue. Taking time to address that issue might just
relieve the pressure that brings some of the others
about. Whatís happening is that by focusing on the one
issue that seems most important, we open for ourselves
the door to peace. Once that door is open, we often find
unexpected resources for dealing with other stressful
situations as well.
We have to be careful about how to resolve the money
issue. For example, if we resolve it by get-rich schemes
or by taking on two or three extra projects or jobs, we
might find ourselves feeling more stress, not less. The
first sensible thing would be to look at where we are
spending money now and seeing if we can make some
changes. The next sensible thing would be to look at
where we are getting money now. Maybe we need to get
serious about a better-paying job, for example. Maybe we
need to ask for a raise. If we do need to take on extra
work, can it be done from home, for instance, rather
than requiring another commute? Itís also important to
consider the spiritual dimension of the money problem.
Do we believe that money is scarce? Do we believe that
others get paid what theyíre worth, and we donít? Do
we worry that God is withholding money from us for some
unknown reason? Do we understand that money is the
expression of what we value, and therefore perhaps we
need to spend more time doing things we truly value,
while getting paid for them? Or do we think that money
comes from drudgery only?
As we begin to examine those questions, we not only
get a better handle on our money. We also get a better
handle on our fundamental beliefs about life and about
what is truly important in life. As we heal our beliefs,
we may find ourselves gaining the wisdom to know how to
handle, say, the rebellious child and the cranky boss.
Perhaps we spend the long commute listening to
inspirational tapes instead of griping about how tired
we are. Little by little, we may find ourselves learning
more about how to enjoy life. And it comes, not when we
try to resolve all the stresses at once, but when we
pick an underlying one, address it, and grow from there.
Having said all of that, itís important to
acknowledge that there is some stress that doesnít
seem to go away. Particularly as we mark the first
anniversary of the tragedy of September 11, many of us
who lost loved ones in that tragedy continue to mourn
and to be devastated by our losses. Others, who were
physically present at Ground Zero that day and survived,
continue to experience harrowing memories that affect
them on a regular basis. Itís quite possible that,
reading the information in this article, they might say,
"Thatís all fine, and I appreciate it. But it
just doesnít do it for me right now."
Thatís very real. But is there any consolation or
comfort for them?
In the days since September 11, I personally have
found comfort in one of the stories told by Jesus in the
New Testament. Itís the story of a man who seeded his
field for a crop of wheat, only to find that during the
night his enemy came and planted weeds. He discovered
this when he saw the wheat and the weeds starting to
grow up together. His servants wanted to tear up the
weeds, but the man refused to let them. He knew that if
they tried to remove the weeds, they would also remove
the wheat and the crop would be ruined. Wisely, he told
them to let the wheat and the weeds grow up together. At
the end, they could separate them (see Matthew
In life, there are stresses we can remove and there
are stresses that resist our every attempt to do away
with them. The latter are the weeds in the story. The
process of grieving takes its own time, and we may just
have to be patient with the process and allow ourselves
time to heal. In doing so, itís important to remember
that life is not meant to be all about weeds. Not by a
long shot. Just as the owner of the field had to
remember that his goal was to produce a crop of wheat,
it is important for us to maintain our focus in life. I
often describe our life purpose as "touching hearts
to make the world a better place." We can do that
even in our sorrow. Itís important always to place
ourselves in the presence of joy.
You never know when joy is going to erupt. As I was
writing these words, the phone rang and it was a very
close friend of Chris Hanley, my friend who died on
September 11. I had met him and his wife at Chrisís
memorial Mass. They have just had a baby girl, and want
to have her baptized. They have invited me to do the
baptism. During our brief conversation, we noted how
very special it was to have a new life to celebrate,
especially this year. Chris would have been at the
baptism; and in a very special way, he will be. I thank
God that in these difficult times, he provides us so
many occasions for joy. I pray, too, that all of us will
remain open and expectant of those joyous occasions.
© Copyright 2002 Father Paul Keenan. All Rights Reserved.
Father Paul Keenan: Popular speaker, author and
radio co-host of WABC Radioís "Religion on the
Line," Father Paul Keenan likes to talk and write
about the issues that matter to people. Widely
experienced as a national and local television and
radio news commentator, he is the author of Good
News for Bad Days, Stages of the Soul and Heartstorming.
As Director of Radio Ministry of the Archdiocese
of New York, he supervises, produces and writes for
various radio and television programs. In addition, he
serves as a parish priest in New York City.
Father Paul Keenan, came to his
now-ten-year-old career in New York broadcasting after
having been a college teacher and administrator and a
parish priest for many years. He hails from Kansas City,
where he graduated from Rockhurst University and
completed an M.A. in Moral and Pastoral Theology at
Saint Louis University. He was ordained to the
priesthood in 1977, and went on to complete an M.A. in
Philosophy at Fordham University.
Father Paul is also known for
his work on the Web. He hosts his own website (www.fatherpaul.com)
and contributes regular articles to various other sites.
He is a regular columnist for the monthly newspaper,
"Catholic New York." His other talents and
interests include reading, cooking and being humble
servant to his three cats, Teddy, Lionel and Midnight.