Q: Dear Dan, I am struggling with a recurring problem with anger that I can’t seem to overcome. I have read books, tried to understand how it surfaces in me, prayed fervently (I am living in a state of grace outside of this problem). But I seem to be making no progress. I am very very very very very very very very frustrated.
A: After years of observing intelligent, capable, and committed people work to solve recurring challenges like the one you face, I have discovered a rule that is almost universally true. Those who use this rule will be far more likely to overcome the challenges they face, those who don’t, will, more often than not, find themselves frustrated, dejected, and shackled with recurring sin and the debilitating and often disastrous consequences.
The rule itself is simple but it depends on a handful of foundational truths that are worthy of brief exploration.
- Sin clouds the heart and mind. Small sins and imperfections, left unchecked, cause a gradual and often unnoticed degeneration of the mind and will. Thus, when someone is caught in a destructive cycle, they often do not have, within themselves, all the necessary faculties to identify the root cause, isolate it, formulate a solution, and then implement that solution successfully.
- We humans are finite creatures. We come into this world with blind spots. Even in the garden before our natures were tainted by sin, we had blind spots. In our perfect state, these were merely dependencies on one another to allow the other to see what the other could not see and to serve them in their need. In our fallen state, these blind-spots and dependencies can and do morph into serious realms of spiritual delusion and dysfunction. Post fall, with respect to serious emotional, psychological, and spiritual problems, it is very rare that we can effectively identify and overcome them on our own.
What can we do about these limitations? Well, the traditional means of the sacraments, prayer, spiritual reading, etc. are essential. Even so, many people are still stuck in their spiritual battles even after years of faithful practice of these life-giving disciplines. Other, less commonly used but very powerful tools are the combination of a rule of life coupled with a daily examen. Together these dramatically increase our spiritual peripheral vision by making us more self-aware (these practices consistently utilized can also help to shed light on our root sin). These tools help us to become more cognizant of our blind-spots and delusions, not because we begin to see them clearly but because we see the patterns of the outcomes more clearly. Remember, you can never clearly or directly see exactly what is in your blind-spot.
Even with these wise and helpful practices, many people still are stuck in their spiritual growth. Why? It is because they don’t practice this simple rule:
If, with full vigor and commitment, we attempt to overcome a pattern of sin, imperfection, or any other major personal challenge three times without clear success or significant progress, we must seek outside help to properly diagnose and solve the problem.
Here’s an insight to the solution to this problem from God the Father given to St. Catherine of Siena on the inherent incompleteness of our design and our clear need for others in this situation and in the general reality of spiritual growth (Dialogue #7):
The same is true of many of my gifts and graces, virtues and other spiritual gifts, and those things necessary for the body and human life. I have distributed them all in such a way that no one has all of them. Thus I have given you reason – necessity, in fact – to practice mutual charity. For I could well have supplied you with all your needs, both spiritual and material. But I wanted to make you dependent on one another…
So, we are designed with a fundamental need for one another. Humility, mutual dependence and charity, are absolutely necessary for our spiritual growth; they are absolutely necessary for us to overcome serious spiritual challenges. Our culture, fueled by the lies of the enemy, militates against these holy needs and seek to replace them with the anti-virtues of pride, independence, and hyper-individualism. These anti-virtues coupled with fear and vanity have locked up and destroyed many people of good-will who simply would not reach out and get help with the challenges they face.
Jesus said that He came to give us life and that more abundantly. Reach out for that life that he offers to you. Don’t settle for less. Get the help you need.
PS: For more in-depth treatment of these ideas, see Dan’s book, Navigating the Interior Life – Spiritual Direction and the Journey to God.