Posted October 05, 2015:
When You Don’t Get Your Way

by Fr. Denis Lemieux.

My new book Idol Thoughts presents the doctrine of the eight "thoughts" that take us away from God, an ancient teaching of the Eastern Church. This schema of harmful interior attitudes of mind and heart emigrated westward and became part of our Roman Catholic tradition in the form of the "Seven Capital Sins."

My choice to write a book about the earlier list of eight and not the more familiar list of seven (a choice driven by my own perversely stubborn conviction that the older list is the better, more accurate one) has meant many conversations with people where in my efforts to explain the book, I am required to field the obvious question: "So which one did we leave out?"

Well, it’s not quite that simple. Envy is not part of the original list, for one thing. Vainglory is split off from pride as its own thought, (in the West the former is considered a "daughter vice" of the latter), and in addition to sloth (or acedia) the East adds the thought of despondency.


This may seem very strange to us, that sadness can be something that leads us away from God. Surely it is a normal part of our humanity to be sad when sad things happen, isn’t it?

When someone we love dies or we ourselves fall into some terrible travail—isn’t it normal and healthy to be sad?

The thought of despondency is not the same thing as the emotion. And it certainly is not the mental illness of clinical depression, which is beyond the direct control of the one suffering from it and which normally requires medical intervention to alleviate.

While the three—the thought, the emotion, and the illness—are subtly inter-related, they are three distinct things.

What is this thought of despondency that takes us away from God? It is, essentially, the idea that happiness lies in having everything just the way we like it.

Happiness is getting my own way! And because in this life we don’t get our own way on a fairly regular basis, at least not entirely and quite often not at all, the thought of despondency is, basically, pouting. Sulking. The inner two-year old we all have lurking within, but expressed in very adult ways.

We are not likely to kick and scream and sob openly when we don’t get exactly what we want… but we have our ways, don’t we? Ways that do us and those around us a lot of harm.

Constant complaining. Negativity, bitterness of spirit. Self-pity. Frowny faces and furrowed brows and sullen silences.

Oh, we’re adults, and we’re not going to roll around on the floor throwing a tantrum when things don’t go our way, but we will find all sorts of not-so-nice grown up ways to make darned sure that everyone (God most certainly included) is quite aware that we are not happy!

And of course, in the midst of all this, constant pressure, constant manipulation, constant struggling and fighting to get everyone in line (God most certainly included!) so that things are just the way we like them.

Because we cannot be happy unless everything is just the way we like it. Right?

Wrong. Perniciously, disastrously, tragically wrong, and a moment of clear thought on the matter makes that clear.

If I can only be happy by getting my way, and you can only be happy by getting yours, and our ‘ways’ happen to clash (which happens on a daily basis with any person you happen to live with), then only one of us can be happy, and we are locked in terrible enmity.

So, there is no real rest, no real joy, no real possibility of peace in life, if the ideal of happiness is constant self-gratification.

But this thought of despondency lurks in most of us, blighting our lives with its insistent demands. And we all know people whose lives are ruined by this cancer of the soul. People who are just so bitter, so dreadfully negative, so terribly unhappy because their lives didn’t turn out the way they hoped they would.

Life never turns out the way we hope it will, either in big things or in small. And we are foolish in the extreme to think it will, to be surprised when it doesn’t, and to lapse into sorrow upon learning the awful truth: that our will is not the sovereign law of the universe.

The happy truth is, joy comes not from getting our own way, but from growing to love God enough that our sole concern is to "get in God’s way," to conform our lives with willing eager hearts to the plan of God for us each day.

I write this fully aware, since I am a priest who spends a good portion of his waking hours doing spiritual direction, that "the plan of God" for many people involves a great deal of suffering and hard things.

We are not always pouting for trivial or silly reasons—the supermarket didn’t have my favorite brand of salsa!

I would maintain nonetheless that, even if the emotion of sadness and grief is unavoidable and indeed quite healthy, that emotion can only yield to the thought of grief if we allow it to do so, and that emotional sadness only becomes bitterness of soul when we do this.

How do we not allow it to happen? How do we isolate the thought of despondency from the emotion, and allow the healthy emotion to run its course while putting to death the poisonous thought of willful self-centeredness?

I would suggest a tactic that is so simple and obvious—trite, almost—that it often eludes us.

Thank God for everything. That’s it. Gratitude, praise, a constant return to the basic truth of our life, which is that everything we are, everything we have, everything at all is from God as a free gift of his love.

When we focus on the things in our life that are not pleasing to us, we so often miss little trivial things that might give us some pleasure if we thought of them more and thanked God for them regularly.

Like… the sun, the moon, the earth, the stars. Trees and flowers. Rivers, lakes, the ocean. Animals. Mountains. Clouds. Our own bodies and whatever measure of health we have in them. Every last person in our life we have ever known or even passed by on the street.

And… oh, Jesus Christ! Salvation and eternal life in him! The Eucharist, the forgiveness of sins, the gift of the Holy Spirit, the love of God the Father, the communion of saints in the mystery of the Church, the Bible…

You know, little trivial things like that. How about thanking God regularly for all of the above and so very much more?

I am writing this article on my laptop, on a table, sitting on a chair, lit by a lamp. Thank you, God, for my laptop, the table, and the chair, the lamp – alleluia!

And if we want to really get ambitious with this gratitude stuff, we can even try thanking God for the afflictions and the hardships of our life.

Not because they are really good things and we are just being silly to be upset about them, but because somewhere in them (maybe we can see it; often we cannot) there is an action of God, some way in which God is using this bad thing to do a good thing.

Even the worst things, even the things that actually will kill us, have at some deep level a place where God is at work to work something better.

After all, even the event of our own physical death is, if we are in grace and in faith, the very entry into the life of heaven for us.

If even that seemingly ultimate evil is a place where grace works its ultimate triumph, then surely all the evils in our life can be met and redeemed (admittedly in ways we find hard to comprehend) by conquering grace.

Gratitude, thanksgiving, praise of God, unceasing and unstinting, at the very core of our life of prayer—this is the radical cure of despondency in our lives.

In Canada we celebrate Thanksgiving in October, while for Americans it is a November feast, but for all of us every day should be Thanksgiving Day, and the more we take that to heart and actually do it, the less the thought of sadness can have any access to us whatsoever.

And thank God for that, too—that he has provided us with such a simple and direct way to counter one of the truly great enemies of human happiness and thriving.

Idol Thoughts is published by Justin Press and is also available from MH Publications.


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