Expectations and idols

From a recent Catholic Weekly column:

Lately I’ve been trying to spend a bit of effort on identifying and doing something about some of my sources of stress.

There is no shortage of stressors in life are there? A certain amount of stress is useful and gets us out of bed and into the tasks of each day, but the kind of stress I’m trying to manage at the moment is the kind that weighs me down and leads to feelings of running on empty, of hopelessness, of burn out.

There are a few things I found that I can do – decluttering the house, which I wrote about last week, was a big and obvious one. Praying parts of the Divine Office is another. The next step is much harder but has the potential to be most liberating, and that is to seriously trim down my expectations.

I’m aware that this isn’t something which can be done all at once (unless God wishes to do it that way, which would be a great grace I would welcome!).

It will probably take me a lifetime to chip away at the endless litany of “I shoulds” which can play in my mind and disturb my peace each and every day if I let it.

As in: I should have written a book by now, I should own a home by now, I should be more familiar with classical music and literature and art, I should be volunteering more, I should be cooking interesting dinners every day and reading to my kids every night.

These are good things to have, or do, or aspire to, but even a good thing or intention can oppress and depress us if it displaces our desire for God.

Desire for anything, if it isn’t what God wills for me right now, can quickly turn into a monster that devours my hope and joy and even my simple enjoyment of friendships with people who have these things I lack or do these great things I can’t manage to do.

I just realised that my expectation that I would read to or with all of children every day had become a source of stress and discouragement for me. If for some reason I missed doing it for a day or two I felt guilty, time-strapped and therefore frustrated.

Then that little thought, “I haven’t read to the kids for a couple of days,” combined with whatever other thing I didn’t get around to doing that day translated to an unvoiced but still-present thought – “I’m not so great at this mothering thing”.

And from there I find that things never go very well.

I had taken a good thing, the common advice that we need to read a few stories to our young children each day, and become so fist-clenchingly attached to it that it was becoming a burden.

Anything I can point to which is good but not necessary, when I try to meet that good every single day – that is, religiously – I am worshipping an idol of my own making, or our culture’s making which I have adopted as my own.
Being a good wife, mother, and simply being a good human, isn’t the result of a certain number of good acts or habits or accomplishments. There’s no ‘magic bullet’ for being a good, even holy person.

The one and only thing absolutely necessary is allowing the will of God to find a place within me. And only God knows in practical terms what that might look like next week, next year or 20 years from now.

I think that much of our stress can be relieved if we learn to look forward with hope rather than with expectation which, as Pope Francis said recently, are two very different things.

I hope that Jesus uncovers every idol in my heart and makes room for only him. I pray that I can keep coming back to the only one who will remove the burdens I constantly and unconsciously place upon myself, and let him give me his peace.

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