Sorting Out Stress
March 7, 2018

“Choice is praised for being related to the right object.”
Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics

I have spent a bit of time this week thinking about different kinds of stress. We feel stress when there is a conflict between things that we desire.

What really strikes me is that there is a distinction that comes before other distinctions in kinds of stress. Prior to managing our stressful situations-—which is a very important thing to learn how to do—-we need first to ask a basic question about our desires that are in conflict. Sometimes we will find that our desire, or in other words our heart, is not in the right place.

Commonly today we miss this point, since our culture tells us that we can pretty much want whatever we choose to want. It also tells us that we can have it all–simultaneously. So we skip directly to managing the stress, seeking to deal with the conflicts in our desires, rather than evaluating the desires themselves.

But what if we want things we shouldn’t? What if there is dis-order in what we want? In other words, what if our actual desires are in conflict with the deeper needs and desires of our hearts? According to the great tradition on ethics and the good life, such dis-order and conflict will itself be a deeper cause of stress and indeed of unhappiness.

Consider two fathers. The first puts his wife and children before his career. This man may indeed experience stress in certain conflicts between career and home, but this stress is in a context of a right order of desires.

The second father, though certainly a very decent person, has fallen prey to common pressures in society today and desires success in the business world more than he should. He still wants to have a good relationship with his spouse and children, but this latter desire often takes a second place to the former. This man might not feel as stressed by long hours away from home as the first father does. But he will have the stress and unhappiness of things being out of place in his heart and in his life.

So what is the point here? I think that the first step in analyzing and addressing stress in our lives is to ask: what desires are at the root of the stress? And then we ask ourselves: is it good and reasonable that I/we want these things?

This point is especially applicable to children. Parents will need to be aware of the stresses that arise in our children—and therefore also in us!—because of desires that youth culture arouses in them. Our children often experience deep conflicts, indeed even torturous ones, between the culture of our home and the culture around them. This is often not their fault. They find themselves desiring things that are constantly put before them, if for no other reason than simply so they can fit in, which in itself is not an unreasonable desire!

In reality, the same thing is going on in adults: we are, understandably, being drawn toward things that are less than desirable, if not downright wrong.

The conclusion here is not that all stress is caused in us by our disordered desires. No indeed. The real conclusion is that our first step in addressing the stresses of our life is to examine whether our heart itself, or of those whom we love and care for, needs to be gently redirected.

Put otherwise, the response to some stress should be to seek an interior change of heart. What things do we desire, and what things should we desire? Where is our heart?

When we discern that a stress is not rooted in a disorder in our heart, then and only then should we ask what can be done in the external forum to address this situation. So then we need to look for structures in our life—whether imposed by exterior circumstances or by the patterns of our own actions—that militate against our rightly ordered desires. And there are plenty of such structures today. Next week let us begin to examine some.

Author’s Note: Last week I expressed my intention to do a series reflecting on stress and its causes, and I solicited input from readers on stressful situations. I was deeply moved by the response. Indeed, I came to understand my own situation better by hearing about others’ situations. I have collated the suggestions—and more are always welcome—and am planning a more extensive series than I had anticipated. I am grateful for such gracious and thought-provoking input and suggestions.

Aristotle (384-322 B.C.), student of Plato, tutor of Alexander the Great, has been considered by many to be the greatest ancient philosopher. The Nicomachean Ethics is his major ethical work.

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  1. Great, Dr. Cuddeback! Really looking forward to this series.

    1. Thanks Brad! All best to you and yours.

  2. Looking forward to your series as I am currently being treated with acupuncture treatments in order to better cope with my stress.

    1. Thank you Anne. I’ll say a prayer for your treatments.At least in any case I know that is something I can do to help…

  3. Wow! This is a great topic to reflect on. A lot of us truly need this! Thank you for your insights!

    1. You are very welcome, Anna.

  4. Hi John!
    Love this series, looking forward to it as it unfolds. I have thought about much of this, wish I had some wisdom to share, but I’m still on the basics, the rightly ordering of my desires. In some ways this “ordering” seems perpetual, though I think it’s more like a musical instrument, or a muscle, the more exercise, the clearer and deeper the tone.

    1. Malia, As usual you have said it very well. It really struck me in writing this piece what a huge role the right ordering of our desires has in the managing of our stress. And yes indeed: it is a matter for daily efforts, just like a musical instrument…

  5. I want to put in a comment of my own, based on this response that I received from a friend by email this morning:
    “So, WHEN has a man placed career above family? How is that discerned with surety? I can see instances where a fellow who spends quite a good deal of time at home (even works from the home, say in the case of a fellow who starts his own think tank) places work over family. I can imagine some one who travels a good deal away from home and works afar never having his family from his mind (say, in the case of a fruit picker).”
    First of all I want to say: Amen! Great issue. My own main response to this question is this:so we men (just to stick with the example)have to be very diligent in examining our own desires in this area. Perhaps we sometimes too easily give ourselves the benefit of the doubt. Often, someone from the outside will not be in a position to tell someone else that he is not putting first things first in his desires. The main point of my post above is that we must all begin by having a properly ‘critical’ approach to our own desires in the various parts of our life. So even as we move forward and speak about certain contexts that tend to be stressful for families–such as your example of the fruitpicker–we will need to remember that one can indeed have and preserve rightly ordered desires in intrinsically stressful circumstances. At the same time,that fruitpicker would probably be the first one to seek more congenial employment, if he could….
    Thanks, my friend, for the question, which certainly deserves closer consideration.

    1. Dr. Cuddeback, I like the point of this post, and especially the comment about helping children, but I don’t agree with your example.

      I say that neither the Family nor the Career should be made a false idol. Career and Family are not particular choices. They are shorthand for persistent and complex circumstances that contain millions of opportunities to recognize and choose the best way to love. Those choices will form the habits (and virtuous character) of ourselves and others.

      So, when God calls us to have both Career and Family, (pretty normal, and Godly) I say the stress must be seen as arising in the millions of small circumstances, not the general circumstances of Career and Family. Sin is the choice of a lesser good over a greater one. The family is almost always the primary context for our acts of love, but clearly the greater good is sometimes served by working. To the question “When has a man placed career over family?”, may we all answer “I put career over family when it was the greater good.”

      I will definitely affirm your response to your friend about someone from the outside not being able to tell about the ranking of desires for someone else. The heart’s ranking of competing goods is truly knowable by God alone, and therefore only God can judge. (Not only can someone from the outside not judge well, often we ourselves cannot. We often fail to be poetic and personal enough in our approach. Instead we tend to analyze and compare to others exteriors, which is like apples to oranges, the result can be a sense of false shame and guilt.)

      1. Mr. Cavalier, Thanks for the comment. I think you raise a good point that calls me to make more clear what I was saying. I pointed to a fundamental order between the good of ‘career’ or ‘success in the business world’ and the good of home life. I stand by this ordering, and I fear that the way you express your comment does not do justice to that order. Family comes before ‘career’ as such and ‘success in the business world.’ You note that they are not ‘particular choices’ and that they each are very complex. I grant this. But there remains a fundamental hierarchy between them: a hierarchy that must be recognized if one is properly to weigh goods in the myriad of choices that we need to make, both at home and at work. I will also of course grant that at times a father, for instance, must work late and long hours at work, and it would be wrong for him simply to leave to come home at a critical juncture saying “Sorry, I’m needed at home right now.” But in this case, it is not that his ‘career’ takes precedence over his home life. Rather, his career remains subordinated to his home life, but it nonetheless might require extra attention right now. One other thing I will grant: I am not asserting that home life is the ultimate good in any individual’s life. The common good of the nation may require that I leave my family to serve in a war effort, for instance. But this does not come under what I mean, or what I believe is commonly meant, by ‘career.’
        I think this is an important point to address, precisely because I’m convinced that a fundamental disorder of our culture is precisely that men, and now women too, are encouraged to put their ‘careers’ above home life. And career here fundamentally refers to something that one pursues as a matter of personal fulfillment, rather than as subordinated to serving of the household, or the greater common good. My work, I would suggest in conclusion, should always have in view the good of my household, as well as the good of the broader community. Success in a career is not a good simply in itself, as the good of household and broader community is.
        If I have misunderstood your point, then please forgive me.

        1. Thank you very much for your reply. From your examples, I think we are very much in agreement.

          In discussing my opinion and your response with my family this week, I think it is time for me to be patient to see what you will add next to the series. I agree that that in the items competing for our attention, concern, and effort, that God should get the largest proportion, family second largest, then career, then society, and so on.

          Since proportions are ratios, that would allow ranking the items in order. I am concerned that such a ranking is often misused to misjudge and second-guess ourselves in the moments of decision and thereby create stress rather than avoid it. The stress-causing situation can arise because the lower ranked items will get no attention and effort if the first, most important item is always top priority. And then, after “putting first things first” all week, we will find that we did not come close to the relative proportions and happy balance. It is in this context that I wrote my comment of “career over family when it was the greater good.”

          You need not reply to this point about balance here. I am confident that since you started this series with a particular example where you felt stressed by a lack of time (to fulfill too many good desires in visiting and entertaining), you will address this very point.

          You did write something in your reply that I would appreciate if you could clarify. I am not certain I understand what you meant by “hierarchy between them.” I do not see that family and career are related by a chain of authority or multi-level composition. When you wrote “hierarchy”, did you mean something more than ranking?

  6. What a great topic to explore. I’m a therapist, and also Catholic, and my work experience mostly consists of helping people manage their stress, as you say. But, as I’m trying to incorporate more Catholic thought and perspective into my private practice work, looking at stress from this angle is extremely helpful.

    1. Rosemary, I’m so glad to hear that. Psychological therapy can certainly be a key to helping people manage stress. I welcome your input as we proceed. Thank you.