Last Monday my dental hygienist shared with me that with all that we are going through that most, yes most, of her patients expressed that they are experiencing an overwhelming sense of sadness. The next morning, more than 60 folks gathered here at the Cathedral to celebrate the Memorial of O.L. of Sorrows (where as Catholics, we focus on the traditional seven sorrows of Mary). This is a much larger congregation than we usually have at the morning Mass. My takeaway: We are SAD! The U.S. Census Bureau recently reported that a third of Americans show signs of clinical depression and anxiety. This is becoming amplified during the recent pandemic. A good definition for depression is anger turned inward. This makes sense because anger results from fear and anxiety. Anger that cannot be expressed or managed becomes like a heavy weight or depression. My takeaway: Many of us are also angry and depressed!
What does our Catholic tradition suggest that we should do with our sadness, anger ,and depression? We can get some answers from St. Thomas Aquinas. As a scholastic, theologian, philosopher, and Doctor of the Church, we tend not to run to him for advice on emotional matters. Ironically, he addresses a great deal about anxiety and sadness in his famous writing, Summa Theologica. In his work, St. Thomas’ definition of anxiety is likely rooted in the Latin word angustia, which is “a narrow pass or straight”. In other words, anxiety tends to arise when we experience stress over a situation and find no room to maneuver. We see no way out. Anxiety tends to apply to to the future, in contrast with pain, which generally pertains to the present. With pain, one can suffer in the moment yet recognize that it will pass. Anxiety arises when we sense no definitive end to the painful situation. Thus, St. Thomas calls anxiety a kind of sorrow or sadness that emerges when the mind is so weighed down by something that it seems impossible to escape. So how are we to escape? Luckily, St. Thomas advises some of the following remedies:
Have a good cry. Seriously! St. Thomas makes the very interesting observation that even though where there is laughter and smiling there is increased joy; with weeping, rather than increasing sorrow, it actually can diminish it. “A hurtful thing hurts yet more if we keep it shut up, because the soul is more intent on it: whereas if it be allowed to escape, the soul’s intention is dispersed as it were on outward things, so that the inward sorrow is lessened” Many of us, especially men, were told not to cry, not to show our emotions. Such an approach seldom works, for the more we try to swallow our stress, the more it comes out in unhealthy ways. You don’t have to do it in front of anyone, but remember tears are the soul’s way to exhale sorrow.
Vent to a confidant. St. Thomas said “that when a man’s friends comfort him, he sees that he is loved by them, and this affords him pleasure… [and] every pleasure softens sorrow”. A huge danger to avoid in our current situation when we are overwhelmed and sad is to turn in on ourselves. It is at these moments that we often need the perspective of others. And even if they don’t have many answers to give us, simply talking to them about our sorrow is itself a form of release.
Do something fun. Read the above quote again. St. Thomas says, “pleasure assuages pain.” If you are tired, you get some sleep. If sad, pleasure is also helpful remedy. He is not talking avoidance here. We need to face our pain, but soon, there comes a time when we must go and savor the better things in life again. When someone dies, we mourn. But I have seen too often when folks feel guilty about healing. This is unfounded guilt. The deceased would never want us to stop living just because they did. Grab onto joy!
Take a warm bath and a nap. Seriously, he said that. Well, he really said, “Sorrow, by reason of its specific nature, is repugnant to the vital movement of the body; and consequently whatever restores the bodily nature to its due state of vital movement, is opposed to sorrow and assuages it.” What he had in mind here is the proper care of the body. We are not simply soul and they interact with and influence each other. So, if stressed, do something that will offer soothing care of your body.
Contemplate truth. St. Thomas was a philosopher after all. The word philosophy literally means “the love of wisdom,” and he said, “the contemplation of truth eases pain or sorrow, and the more so, the more perfectly one is a lover of wisdom.” Remember your faith and turn to Jesus. You have a mission, a purpose given by God. The sufferings of the present are nothing to be compared to the glory that will be revealed. All the craziness that surrounds us just reminds us that this world is not our home. So, set your gaze on the place where joy shall never end, follow your vocation, and grab onto Joy!
God Bless, Fr. J.J.