What You Enjoy Can Hurt You
By joe paprocki
April 2, 2012
God created us to take pleasure in His creation. Through our senses—taste, touch, smell, sight, sound—we are able to take in a myriad of pleasures. A healthy spirituality relishes these pleasures. Our liturgical calendar is resplendent with feasts. Our greatest feast—Easter—is even celebrated with a 50-day festival.
On the other hand, danger comes when one of these pleasurable activities drifts toward excess. We can become addicted—a word that used to be applied only to abuse of alcohol or drugs but now describes dependence on many substances and behaviors (shopping, television, Internet, gambling, etc.). Today, we realize that addictions (dependencies) can occur in a variety of behaviors, all of which share one thing in common: They are designed to bring about pleasure. A healthy spirituality, however, is all about balance. That’s why the 50-day Easter season we mentioned above is preceded by a 40-day period of fasting during the season of Lent.
The effect of excesses can be subtle. Thomas Keating, a Trappist monk, points out that those of us who are not involved in “obvious addictions” often fail to realize many of our behaviors are compulsive and says we are “blissfully unaware of how powerless we are because we can usually fulfill the basic obligations of life.”
So just what are we to do with these itches, these micro-addictions, disordered behaviors and unhealthy habits? Let’s look at some strategies.
Recognize and honor your limits
If we have a particular weakness for any of these pleasures, we should recognize it, embrace it and announce it to others: “I’ll have a beer with you, but don’t let me order a refill!” “I love the mall, but make sure I stop at $__.” “Ooh, that dessert looks good … just cut me a sliver, though.” If you recognize your limits and embrace them, you can proudly announce them to others so the whole world can see what it already knew—that you, like all other people, are broken.
Practice an extended period of private prayer, reflection, meditation, pondering, percolating—whatever you want to call it. But do something on a regular basis to engage in a conscious dialogue with your inner self and with God. If every waking moment is crowded with input and stimulation, your soul’s voice is being drowned out. You’ll eventually begin to experience spiritual numbness … a blasé feeling. Without prayer, you run the risk of avoiding issues that may lead you to self-destructive thoughts, feelings and behaviors.
Be honest and contrite
Our disordered actions are bad enough. The only thing worse is the denial, rationalization, lying and callousness that we often engage in to cover them up. The wall of self-righteousness prevents us from encountering God’s mercy, which He is always ready to offer to us. Contrition and honesty remove the bricks of the wall of righteousness so it eventually collapses, allowing God’s mercy to flow in. The solution is not to beat ourselves up over our failures but to simply, contritely and honestly admit we are broken and need fixing.
Practice charity and self-sacrifice
One of the most effective ways of overcoming self-indulgent behaviors is to focus less attention on ourselves and more on the needs of others. Service to others forces us into a selfless mode. When we engage in charitable works, our spiritual itch lessens. Why? Not simply because we are keeping busy but because we itch in the first place as our spirit transcends the narrow borders of our own life.
Get involved with a faith community
We need a faith community to challenge us to grow into who we are called to be. Too many faith communities settle for being places where everybody feels good. A true faith community proclaims the Gospel of Jesus which begins, at least in the Gospel of Mark, with the words, “Repent!” The Gospel is all about conversion—change of heart and mind. Faith communities that are alive challenge us to do the hard work needed to discover the only salve that will heal us—the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Change your routine
Often we can avoid trouble by physically removing ourselves from troublesome places and conditions. Too often we let our inner kids run wild in the candy stores of life. If you’re spending too much time on the Internet, watching TV, engaging in social media or playing video games, then you literally need to get out of the house. If you can’t avoid the box of donuts in the lunch room at work during your break, head out the door for a 10-minute walk. You won’t be able to engage in unhealthy behaviors if those behaviors reside in another “zip code.”
Practice disorder displacement
You can displace negative behaviors by replacing them with positive behaviors. One of the most effective ways to do this is by focusing on gratitude. Often, when I feel compelled to engage in some behavior that is vapid at best and negative at worst, I make a gratitude list. I make a list of all the things I am grateful for. Once you start, it’s hard to stop. You quickly begin to realize just how blessed you are and how grateful you are for these blessings. Before you know it, the gratitude has literally displaced any feelings of discontentment.
Desires are not bad, but they can cause us to lose balance in life if left unchecked. Practicing moderation—setting limits—is the key to spiritual wellness. Living in moderation is a counter-cultural statement in a consumerist society that screams, “Super-size me!”
Setting limits does not reduce your capacity for joy, nor does it enslave you. Rather, it sets you free to enjoy life more fully and more deeply.
Excerpt from 7 Keys to Spiritual Wellness (Loyola Press, 2012). Reprinted with permission of Loyola Press. To order copies call 1-800-621-1008 or go to www.loyolapress.com/keys.
Joe Paprocki, DMin, is national consultant for faith formation at Loyola Press. He has 30 years of experience in ministry and hastaught at many different levels. Paprocki is a popular speaker and theauthor of numerous books, including A Well-Built Faith.