Finding Peace in a Time of Panic

Dr. Jim Langley is the Executive Director of St. Raphael Counseling.

All things in life are an opportunity to grow as a person. We can always become better spouses, better parents, better friends, and better Christians. This is the first (and hopefully the last) time that essentially the entire world has had to fast from the sacraments. Masses are cancelled, weddings are postponed, and people are dying alone without an anointing. It is not hyperbole to say that this is an unprecedented time in human history. Yet, God has allowed all of this to happen, and He never ceases in His call to each and every one of us to become holy. “You, therefore, must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (Mt 5:48). From my perspective as a Catholic husband, father, and psychologist, I have observed some lessons during the pandemic we can all stand to learn:

Our Utter Dependence on God

Being deprived of communion for the first time in my life has left my soul feeling “rusty.” I feel okay, but I’m a little more tense and a little less charitable. Yet, I am grateful because this is just a tiny glimpse of what it would be like to be truly deprived of God in my life. We rely on Him for our very being and there is nothing that we can accomplish without His grace. Because of this, gratitude should be our fundamental response towards anything life brings, even in the midst of fear and sorrow.

If you watch typical news headlines, it is clear that we live in a culture that idolizes itself. We lavish adoration on celebrities and the science and technology gurus would have us believe that we are on the brink of endless prosperity, power, and even immortality. I don’t think that God sent the coronavirus as a plague to punish us, but it certainly reminds us how silly our self-worship is and just how easily our delusions of grandeur can be stripped from us. Now is a time for all of us to reflect on the idols in our own life and embrace a penitential attitude that is despised by the rest of the world.

Fear is the Enemy of the Spiritual Life

This has been echoed by saints across the ages, and Jesus Himself tells us many times throughout the gospels to “be not afraid.” Fear makes us hide. It turns us inward and makes us selfish. This is different from “fear of the Lord” as a gift of the Holy Spirit, which draws us out of ourselves and into union with God. But given the circumstances, you are either a saint or totally naïve to be anxiety-free in the midst of this crisis, and anxiety is just a fancy word for “fear.” This is okay, but we all have to work to manage it. Practically speaking, anxiety has several negative side effects. First off, it is contagious. Think of the last time you had a conversation with someone who was really stressed out. When the conversation was over, you probably felt a spike in your own stress levels. This is especially true with our children who soak in their parents’ emotional states like little sponges. Anxiety also makes us turn away from one another. When we’re preoccupied, we don’t slow down to connect with, listen to, or even lean on the people who love us the most. Because fear makes us turn selfishly inward, we need to be intentional about getting outside ourselves. We have to be socially distanced, but we don’t have to be socially isolated. Find creative ways to connect with others. Believe me, there are many people who are suffering more than you in this crisis. Call them, send them a little gift, and find ways to get outside of yourself.

Refocus Your Priorities

There are a million forces that pull us away from God and away from our families. We always have bills to pay, diapers to change, and careers to build, and so we put off those things that are truly important until tomorrow. But why wait until tomorrow? With bars, malls, and stadiums closed, God has done us the favor of making us give up things for Lent whether we wanted to or not. This really is a once-in-a-lifetime chance to deeply assess your values, relationships, and spirituality. Your values (and how well you live them out) are your recipe for happiness in life. How well is that recipe working for you? In the end, the prescription for surviving the coronavirus is the same one for a successful Lent: pray, give, and fast.

In this time of uncertainty, it’s easy to get caught up in our own anxieties, perhaps even more than usual. Besides the fear of possibly getting sick, being cooped up at home only heightens that feeling of anxiousness. However, as Paul writes in Phillippians 4, “Have no anxiety about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.” In this time of panic, let us be intentional about asking God for the peace that only he can provide — and provide it he will.

COMING UP: Banned books: Pushing back against the new ideology

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How would you know if you were being brainwashed? When something plainly false — contrary to common sense and right reason — is so constantly forced on you and you are not allowed to question it, it’s a good indication. This is the nature of ideology: imposing a position without truly establishing it or allowing it to be criticized. We have seen that something clearly opposed to the basics of scientific fact, such as the nature of sex as male and female, can be forced quickly upon American society through the influence of media and public education. And, perhaps not too surprisingly, even something as clear as 2+2=4 has been called into question by progressive educators, such as Dr. Rochelle Gutierrez, turning it into a sign of alleged oppression.  

In our time, dystopian novels have become reality. George Orwell best described the use of ideology in modern political regimes through doublethink, newspeak, and thoughtcrime. In Nineteen Eighty-Four, the main character, Winston Smith, is coerced to accept that 2+2=5, showing his allegiance to ideology over reality. Orwell speaks of the way ideology gains power over the mind: “The Party is not interested in the overt act: the thought is all we care about. We do not merely destroy our enemies, we change them.” This domination does not broker any opposition: “It is intolerable . . .  that an erroneous thought should exist anywhere in the world, however secret and powerless it may be.” If the truth can circulate freely, then ideology will fail.  

You might ask how the acceptance of ideology differs from accepting the mystery of faith, which requires our obedience to God. A key difference is that God’s revelation makes sense even while beyond reason. God does not shut down our thinking but wants us to ask questions and continue to come to know him and his creation throughout our lives. Faith cannot contradict reason because they both come from God, from his gifts of revelation and creation. You know you are facing ideology, however, when it refuses any discussion of contrary views. Catholics have been accused of hate for refusing to go along with the new ideology of human sexuality. This ideology claims to speak truly of the reality of human life, although it doesn’t add up, contradicting itself and the clear facts of science. The fight for the future focuses on speaking the truth. Without the ability to think, discuss, and read freely, it will be hard to respond to the ideological wave overwhelming us. 

Throughout the country, however, great books and humanities programs are being shut down for their emphasis on the Western tradition. Cornell West, an African American philosopher at Harvard, writing with Jeremy Tate, speaks of the spiritual tragedy of one American university closing down its classics department: “Yet today, one of America’s greatest Black institutions, Howard University, is diminishing the light of wisdom and truth that inspired [Frederick] Douglass, [Martin Luther] King and countless other freedom fighters. . . . Academia’s continual campaign to disregard or neglect the classics is a sign of spiritual decay, moral decline and a deep intellectual narrowness running amok in American culture.” For West and Tate, cancelling the Western canon shuts down the central conversation of the pursuit of wisdom that touches every culture.  

Canceling the pursuit of wisdom hits at the integrity of our culture itself, as Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, another dystopian novel, focused on saving books from the fire set on wiping them out, explains: “If you don’t want a man unhappy politically, don’t give him two sides to a question to worry him; give him one. Better yet, give him none.” Books proved hostile in this all-too-real futuristic American society portrayed by Bradbury, undermining the state of contended distraction provided by an omnipresent virtual reality. The fight for truth necessarily entails the books we read and teach.  

In our current cancel culture, Catholics too are being silenced for speaking about reality. Amazon recently cancelled Ryan T. Anderson, who studied at Princeton and Notre Dame and now directs the Ethics and Public Policy Center, blocking the sale of its book on its platform for questioning transgender ideology. The book, When Harry Became Sally: Responding to the Transgender Movement (Encounter Books, 2018), provides a well-researched and thought-out response to the movement overturning common sense and millennia of acquired wisdom. Even more than that, Anderson shows how we are experimenting on our children, subjecting them to practices of hormone therapy and surgery that have not been proven safe or effective. Anderson provides evidence of ideology at work, through its coercive attempt to force us to accept what contradicts clear scientific evidence: “At the heart of the transgender moment are radical ideas about the human person — in particular, that people are what they claim to be regardless of contrary evidence” (29).  

Anderson does not deny the need to help those who suffer from gender dysphoria, although the heart of the books focuses on whether or not we are willing to accept reality and to help others to do so. As Anderson explains, “determining reality is the heart of the matter, and here too we find contradictions … Is our gender biologically determined and immutable or self-created and changeable? … At the core of the ideology is the radical claim that feelings determine reality. From this idea come extreme demands for society to play along with subjective reality claims. Trans ideologues ignore contrary evidence and competing interests; they disparage alternative practices; and they aim to muffle skeptical voices and shut down disagreement. The movement has to keep patching and shoring up its beliefs, policing the faithful, coercing the heretics and punishing apostates, because as soon as its furious efforts flag for a moment or someone successfully stands up to it, the whole charade is exposed. That’s what happens when your dogmas are so contrary to obvious, basic, everyday truths” (47-48). Not only philosophers like Anderson, but many educators, doctors, scientists, and politicians have been cancelled for standing up to the blatant falsehoods of this ideology. 

Does 2+2=5? Is a man a man and a woman a woman? No matter the effect of hormones and surgeries, every cell in the body points to the biological reality of sex, along with a myriad of other physical and emotional traits. Shutting down study and debate does not get to the heart of the matter, the truth of reality and the way to help those who suffer. The ideology does not truly focus on tolerance of others or creating reasonable accommodations, as it seeks to impose itself and coerce us. The reinterpretation of Title IX manifests an “Orwellian fiat” by which sex discrimination, meant to protect women, now becomes a means to discriminate against them: “The Women’s Liberation Front highlights the strange transformation of Title IX into a means to deny privacy, safety, education opportunity, and equality to women” (190). Anderson’s book provides an essential overview of the goals of the transgender movement and how to respond to it from a philosophical and scientific perspective. We should not allow the book to be cancelled! 

The goal of this new ideology is not simply to accept and tolerate a particular position, but, as Orwell recognized, to change us. It constitutes an attempt to redefine what it means to be a human being and to change the way we think about reality. Anything standing in the way will be cancelled or even burned. The quick success of this movement, and other ideologies as well, should make us pause. Do we want our children to think freely and wisely or simply to conform to what is imposed on them without question?  

As Catholics, we are called to think in conformity with faith and reason, upholding the truth, even when inconvenient. We are called to continue to form our own minds and accept the reality of how God made us and how he calls us into relationship with him, as the true source of overcoming suffering and difficulty. If you are uninformed and unable to judge rightly and logically, you are more likely to become prey to the new ideology, especially as enforced by government control and big business. We need Catholic freedom fighters, those willing, with charity, to stop the burning of the great ideas and the cancelling of our own faith.  

Photo by Fred Kearney on Unsplash