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Father Paul Keenan

Think 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 eavesdrop.

Heart Storming by Father Paul Keenan

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.

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."
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 ends meet.
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 is good.

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 itself.

"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.

Stages of the Soul by Father Paul Keenan

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 negative.

What that amounts to, in turn, is arguing for appearances.

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 stressful.

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 stress."

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 doing.

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?

Good News for Bad Days: Living a Soulful Life by Father Paul Keenan

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 12:24-31).

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
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.





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