St Anthony of the Desert

Orthodox Christian Mission

Las Cruces, New Mexico

Fr Gabriel

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Overwhelmed by the Present

A few years ago, a friend had what we used to call a “nervous breakdown.”   I visited him in the hospital, and I took a book along as a gift.  “What’s it about?” he asked.  “How to overcome your sense of being overwhelmed,” I said.  “Exactly what I need; that’s what got me in here in the first place.”  He took the book with thanks.  He also shifted his priorities dramatically in order to become centered again.

In a society in which we measure time by nano-seconds (which means, I suppose, that now we have to fill them in, too), we are in danger of losing balance and inner peace.

We don’t have time to contemplate anything any more.  Now we cope.  Coping is what’s left when everything around you seems to be out of control, when it seems as if nobody’s hand is on the tiller.  Coping is what you do when you’re about to spin out of control when you are overwhelmed by the choices and speed of life.  The result is that deep sense of anxiety felt by all ages and all conditions of people in this century.  It began long ago.  Thoreau said that no labor-saving device in the history of mankind ever saved any man any labor.  Things just get more complicated and anxiety increases.

With so many choices, the idea of freedom takes an unexpected and strange  and ironic twist.  It turns out not that we become more free by the multitude of our choices, but less free.  The more choices we have, the more we get trapped in minor decision-making, and the less time we have to contemplate life on a larger scale, which would help us get our priorities straight.  We get swamped by the minor things in life.  Perhaps the letdown that comes after Christmas is a good thing! It’s a warning.

Years ago I thought that people who sought refuge and quiet and comfort in religious sanctuaries were short-sighted.  I thought we should be looking for challenge, for stimulation, and for leadership in all the proper social causes.  Spiritual institutions need to make social statements and help people to make moral judgments, but my frenetic impulse of those years is gone.  The awareness that we are overwhelmed and overstimulated, rather than empowered, by the multiplicity of choices made me re-consider my thinking.  People get caught in “the paralysis of analysis.”

We need refuges, sanctuaries, and retreats where we can step back and look at a bigger picture in life rather than how many options we have for coffee.  Otherwise we feel that we have accomplished something extraordinary after ordering a double tall, decaf, skinny, vanilla no-foam latte.We need sanctuaries where we can discover ourselves and others and what’s important in life: love, death, friendship, service, community, hospitality, silence, truthful speech, justice, and the like.

There are few places left in our society where we experience the absence of noise and clutter and know the silence which enables us to come into speech.  That’s why retreat centers and monasteries and sanctuaries are bursting with short-term visitors.  You can’t get into such places for months because the press of our society is so great and the outlets for sanity are so few.  Find one to repair to, or create an oasis of silence in the midst of your life, so that you can be repaired in the Presence of God before you get overwhelmed by the present.

published 04 Jan 08