Trouble pounced on a recent trip through rural Minnesota. For 10 miles I drove behind a big red pickup truck jammed full of white men, all of whom looked to be in their 30s. I could see their silhouettes laughing. An American flag was draped across the back seat. The driver landed in sync with a rundown van in the next lane. He laid on the horn, while his clan of bros shouted obscenities out the window and made slashing motions. Their victim?
A lone Somalian teenager.
The abusers sped up a few miles later. The terrified boy exited quickly. With hands shaking on the steering wheel, I fumed: Lord, what has this world come to when a man can’t feel safe alone in his own car?
It’s no secret that we are in a time of trouble—and have been for a long, long time. One could argue humankind has faced “times of trouble” since that fateful day in the garden. The serpent disguised itself over the years as evils such as slavery, nuclear bombs, and hate speech. Sin stains the pages of human history.
So does resilience.
Light always triumphs over darkness, says the Christian story. The troubles of this world are deeply painful—and in the end God’s kingdom will overcome. Love will win. Peace will reign.
But what about now? How do we keep going in a world torn by strife? When hatred and discrimination and violence darken the world time and again, how do we keep our spiritual energy up?
Taking stock and facing privilege
It makes some sense to assume that the easiest way of keeping energy up is to avoid the trouble. This may be true—but “easy” is not the Christian way. Neither is ignorance.
In her book Beyond Apathy: A Theology for Bystanders (Fortress), Elisabeth T. Vasko warns that those who avoid trouble are prone to “privileged apathy,” a dangerous form of inaction in which (often) well-meaning people of privilege sit idly by in the face of others’ suffering. Vasko uses the example of Hurricane Katrina relief. She writes, “Nonwhites were abandoned without electricity, food, or health care by public officials while the city’s white residents were evacuated. As the country watched this death-dealing racial disparity unfold from the comfort of our homes (on television), few whites questioned it . . . [and] did little more than feel sorry for those who were stranded.”
In this case, many white people avoided the trouble they saw for various reasons: They didn’t know what to do. The trouble seemed too big or far away. The trouble would have stirred hard questions about their own comfort or racial privilege. So many avoided the trouble—while fellow human beings died in it.
This is one example of why avoidance cannot be the answer for keeping your spiritual energy up. Instead, I suggest two movements: retreating or moving closer. Your move depends on your answer to the question: Why am I tired?
In one camp we have people whose lives are directly impacted by the trouble. They face trouble head on, day after day. The African American family whose father sits in prison after a wrongful conviction. The lesbian teenager who can’t go a day without reading a hateful comment posted on her Instagram page. The rural farmer whose harvest is a quarter of what it used to be thanks to climate change.
In a neighboring camp we have people whose social locations allow them to be more removed from the day-to-day struggles. The white man whose traffic stop prompts nothing but a gentle warning. The heterosexual teenager whose cute photos with her boyfriend are constantly met with “likes” and heart emojis. The businesswoman whose financial future was set the day she was born.
To be clear, these camps do not have hard and fast borders. Most people experience privilege and marginalization on a spectrum. For instance, as a young woman I’ve felt the impact of troubles that sparked the #MeToo movement. I’ve also benefited from certain privileges given my social location as a white American citizen. I have never worried about getting deported. I can shop without anyone keeping a close eye on me.
The point is, keeping spiritual energy up in times of trouble looks different for different people in different situations. Some suggestions involve retreating from the trouble—if possible—even for a brief moment. Others move us closer to the trouble. Discern which ones might be right for you.
When Beth’s partner came out as transgender, Beth turned to coloring as a way to cope with her anxiety. By focusing on the various colors and designs on the page, she found a way to quiet her mind and slow her breathing.
“I could let go of everything else,” Beth said.
Coloring became a practice of mindfulness. The movement of hand gliding across the page became a way to tune out the noise of what, at the time, felt like chaos and uncertainty swirling around her.
Pope Francis points to the healing power of art in Evangelii Gaudium (The Joy of the Gospel). Beauty in its many forms, he says, is a “means of touching the human heart and enabling the truth and goodness of the Risen Christ to radiate within it.”
- Craft: Like Beth, lose yourself in a craft project. Paint, draw, sculpt, or take photographs. Don’t judge your work against Michelangelo’s. The outcome is not as important as the process. When words fall short, art invites us to express ourselves in colors, textures, and strokes. Try creating an image of hope.
- Cook a meal for friends: Keep your stomach and heart nourished in times of trouble. On the night before he was put to death, Jesus broke bread with his closest companions. Food is the perfect excuse to gather a group of friends together. Raise a glass to the support you offer one another.
- Dance: In the second book of Samuel, we read of the great king David “dancing before the Lord with abandon.” We are embodied people. The majority of our communication is nonverbal. Dance is a powerful medium to share our stories. Plus movement gets the healthy endorphins running, which can boost our mood.
Julie was diagnosed with an anxiety disorder a few years ago. As her list of triggers grew, Julie sought help from a counselor, medical doctor—and the great outdoors. The latter, she says, has been wonderfully therapeutic.
“The earth literally grounds me,” Julie reflects. “It seems so simple, but when anxiety takes over, I lose perspective. It’s like I’m trapped inside my body. Being in nature stimulates my senses. Hearing birds, smelling the air, feeling dirt in my hands all help me return to the world and calm down.”
Gentle breezes and steady waves speak peace in the midst of chaos. When nature nudged Hildegard of Bingen to take a sacred pause, the doctor of the church wrote:
“Glance at the sun. See the moon and the stars.
Gaze at the beauty of earth’s greenings.
What delight God gives to humankind
with all these things. . . .”
- Forest bathe: This popular self-care practice is all about being present. Small groups retreat into the woods with a forest guide. The goal is to “slow down” and “tune into the smells, textures, tastes, and sights of the forest,” according to a NPR article. Started in Japan, forest bathing is found to reduce blood pressure.
- Camp: Remove yourself from a stressful situation for a few days (if possible) and head to a secluded campsite. Pitch a tent. Build a fire. Spend an afternoon lying in a hammock.
- Sign up for a 5K: Running and power walking are great ways to release built-up energy. If you’re worried about getting started, try the “Couch to 5K” app for beginners. Commit to 30 minutes of training a day. It’s your time to tune out the world and tune into your body.
Encountering the mystery of suffering day after day is taxing. Mary Ann, who serves as a parish care ministry specialist, describes accompanying the sick and dying as “heart-breaking, sad, terrifying, infuriating, and beautiful.” To keep herself centered, she spends two Fridays a month at home in quiet. No television, no emails, no distractions. Her husband even vanishes for the day. It’s Mary Ann’s time to read, reflect, and “tap into the wisdom inside.”
“There’s no new interference coming in on my quiet days,” Mary Ann explains. “I’m able to think through issues more clearly and just hold the needs of others in my heart.”
Jesus himself retreated to the silence of the mountaintop to pray as the needs of the crowds multiplied. For centuries, monks and nuns have carried the sufferings of the world into the desert. Silence offers space. As Thomas Merton said, “Silence makes us whole if we let it.”
- Unplug from social media: Does your blood pressure rise when you read a hateful tweet? Too many people spew nasty comments from behind the safety of their screens. Take a break from the noise of the online world. Put your phone in a drawer and log off the computer, even for a few hours.
- Journal: Writing it out can be a helpful way to process difficult situations. The private pages of a journal are the perfect place to express raw emotions. It also gives the author something tangible to go back to if trouble arises again. What helped me make it through last time?
- Nap: It takes stamina to maintain energy in times of trouble. Our bodies need rest. So do our minds. Find a quiet place to close your eyes and recharge your batteries. Naps are proven to lower stress levels and protect the immune system.
Dorothy Day advocated, “We must talk about poverty, because people insulated by their own comfort lose sight of it.” Poverty is one of many social sins that darken the world.
“There’s no way to fix poverty, and there’s a certain anxiety about not having answers,” says Cody, social outreach director at a large urban church. Instead of backing away, Cody chooses to enter into the pain of poverty.
When a major sporting championship came to town and forced people experiencing homelessness to relocate, Cody and his team listened to the needs of their neighbors. They transformed a church lounge into a hospitality headquarters. Volunteers were on hand to watch movies, play cards, and perk up the coffee. The focus of their service was on being with each other—and with God.
“We greet God in the most mundane, human ways,” Cody says. “In bread and wine, people with broken arms, people sleeping in tents, queer people, black people, indigenous people, women people. That’s how God shows up.”
- Buy locally: We have choice over where we give our business. Serve your neighbors by supporting the local economy. Shop at small businesses, even if it costs a little more. Head to farmers markets or street fairs to meet farmers and vendors in the area.
- Question: Take a cue from Dorothy Day and make your voice heard on issues of injustice. Serve with your speech by speaking out against unfair hiring practices, income disparity, the lack of racial diversity in your neighborhood, or the mistreatment of refugees. Let people in power know what the gospel demands.
- Share a “true news” story: The internet is inundated with fake news stories. Serve with your words by sharing a story of hope—or writing your own! Let the good of the world get its 15 minutes of fame, too.
A pack of black history flash cards sits on Jessie’s desk ready to review. The youth minister, who identifies as white, never learned about black history in school. Now Jessie is taking it upon herself to get educated about her brothers and sisters of color. Education is one way to practice solidarity.
“I have to come to grips that I participate, whether I want to or not, in the systemic element of racism and white supremacy,” says Jessie. “That means I have to be particularly intentional about the ways I engage with the issue in my own life and educating myself. When you know more, then God can use that as a way to call you to action and to invite you to a response.”
The goal of true education, according to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., is “intelligence plus character.” He said, “The function of education is to teach one to think intensively and to think critically.”
- Listen to stories: Stories put flesh on facts. Gently ask about the experiences of your coworker who is a DREAMer, your neighbor raising two kids on his own, or your hairdresser who lives paycheck to paycheck. Read books by authors of a different culture.
- Attend lectures: Soak up wisdom, past and present. Broaden your worldview by learning about a subject outside your comfort zone or from someone of a different political leaning. Local colleges, parishes, and Catholic Charities host speakers regularly, often at little to no cost.
- Fast from one meal a week: Take your education to the bodily level. Feel what it is like to be without a basic need for even a short period of time. Fasting has long been a part of the Christian tradition. The practice invites us into solidarity with those who hunger—in a variety of ways. Sometimes the best learning happens by doing.
God’s grace is always active in this world—no darkness can ever overcome it. In the celebration of the seven sacraments, God turns ordinary people and ordinary elements like fire, water, and oil into vessels of God’s grace. The sacraments make visible God’s abounding love for us, according to St. Augustine. They offer hope that a better life is possible.
“We need rituals in our life,” says Father Bill, who is celebrating 46 years of ordination. “We have Fourth of July rituals, Thanksgiving rituals, and school rituals. The sacrament rituals help guide our human journey toward peace and justice.”
- Receive the Eucharist: As the source and summit of the Christian life, Father Bill says the Eucharist reminds us “every time we receive that no matter what we think of ourselves or what others think of us, Christ is saying, ‘I died for you. I was born for you. You are good.’ ”
- Practice reconciliation: We all contribute to the darkness of the world, in small and big ways. The sacrament of reconciliation gives us the grace to mend broken relationships and the strength to be better. As Father Bill notes, “The sacrament is more than just confessing sins. It’s saying, ‘Why do I do this? Who am I?’ It’s looking at one’s values and the call to live a life of dying and rising with Christ.”
- Revel in sacramental moments: Sacraments are not chained to the church building. The ritual often begins inside the church—and continues when we leave. People, and all of creation, embody the sacraments. Allow God’s grace influence how you engage the world. Let the sacraments be the lens through which you see yourself, other people, nature, and all else as reflective of the divine.
Keeping our spiritual energy up in times of trouble takes effort. Some may need to retreat from the darkness, even briefly. Others get energized by moving closer. Individually and together, we can all work toward the fulfillment of God’s promise that the darkness will never overcome the light.
This article also appears in the June 2018 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 83, No. 5, pages 12–17).