Very often people complain about their lives being tough or difficult. Certainly there are very hard and tragic situations—the unexpected illness and/or death of loved ones, or one’s child pursuing a path toward self-destruction and the like. Yet many of our problems tend to be of our own making, and sometimes our anxieties stem partially from our modern loss of perspective. After all, we here in L.A. County live in what is consistently rated as among the best communities to live in the U.S. The major employer pays well, food is plentiful, crime is low, schools are top notch, scenery is beautiful, weather is great, there are good medical facilities, with easy access to even better ones, etc. We look at the rest of the world and see dire poverty, slavery, anarchy, non-existent medical care, war, starvation, etc. What graces OUR newspaper are recreation bonds and roundabouts.
Yet we often cultivate many of our own problems. It’s been said that we make about 80-90 percent of our own problems, and having counseled hundreds of people over the years, I tend to agree. But the problems we deal with are typically a symptom, not the source of troubles. What is commonly a root problem? Selfishness … and its offspring, self-indulgence.
What makes us different from animals? Is it not our ability to reason? Animals live by immediate passions; what they want at the present moment is what they pursue. But WE are given reason to enable us to contemplate the abstract, to plan, and to foresee consequences. Therefore, to live by uncontrolled passions can make us less than what we are made and called to be—can make us “less than” human.
All major monotheisms believe that God has made Man in His image—not the physical appearance, but rather in spiritual ability to reason and, stemming from that, free will. And as we remembered so poignantly on Good Friday, true goodness (and Godliness) lay in the generosity of self-giving rather than in selfishness.
In our free will lay the ability to decide what I will do, and thus have responsibility for our actions. Part of this is our decision whether to follow the good … for Christians, wisdom gained from years, centuries and millennia of human experience, captured in scripture. Or, we can live simply by our urges alone … often to cause pain for ourselves and for others. We freely DECIDE what we will do. Certainly we have to strive to control our animal passions; after all, we have reason in addition to them, not in place of them. But, in the end, we are nevertheless responsible for what we do or fail to do. This is the essence of the theological concepts of virtue and vice (sin). And, ironically, we receive much more in our giving of ourselves than in the self-seeking of our passions.
True human-ness entails reason, and to reason is to see causes and consequences, and to weigh the benefits or harms of the same—to oneself and to others. Yet … God comes to our aid, as St. Paul wrote: “No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your strength, but with the temptation will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it.” (1 Corinthians 10:13)
We’ll always have troubles and tragedies and difficulties in our lives; that’s a main theme of the book of Job, and is simply part of our human existence. And we’ll always have strong temptations to self-centeredness in our lives as well. But God helps us through difficulties if we are faithful to Him, as St. Paul himself found: “I can do all things in him who strengthens me.” (Philippians 4:13) But wisdom in choices, and self-giving, helps us to not pile problems upon problems. So don’t cave to selfishness, for you have the strength to make better, more virtuous choices. Don’t let passions rule you; you rule them! As St. Thomas Aquinas wrote: “How does one become a saint? Will it!”