Live Today

Photo by Emily Lau

Photo by Emily Lau

“Man’s Anxiety Not About to Let Depression Muscle In On Turf,” reads a headline from the satirical news website The Onion. 1 The author writes about a man’s personified anxiety, who is determined to remain in control of the man’s mental state despite the threat of “clinical depression” taking over. I finished reading the overly-repetitive two hundred words and hastily sent the corresponding link to the usual people to whom I complain about all things Columbia. However, I didn’t share this particular article just because I think mental health issues are amusing; it struck a chord with me, and I believe in laughing at one’s own problems as a coping mechanism. Much like the character featured in “Depression Symptom Checklist Speaking To Area Man As No Poem Ever Could,” 2 I related to this piece on a deep level. I, too, often feel like my mental state is dominated either by harrowing concern or overwhelming gloom.

Ancient Chinese philosopher Laozi is (incorrectly) attributed to the new-agey phrase, “If you are depressed, you are living in the past. If you are anxious, you are living in the future. If you are at peace, you are living in the present.” We might not know who penned this mantra, yet our generation has certainly embraced this carpe diem concept, as can be seen in the lyrics of millennial party anthems such as Nicki Minaj’s “The Night is Still Young,” which exhorts, “Live in the present/That gift is for the gifted.” Although these lines seem like they could have come straight out of an eager young teen’s tumblr page, there is some truth to them. Depression and anxiety should not be completely reduced to and categorized into distinct boxes, since they manifest themselves differently in different people. Yet regret can be a major trigger for depression, and uncertainty undoubtedly causes anxiety.

As a Columbia senior, I understand how regret and uncertainty can affect one’s mental state. While I am trying hard to make the most out of my last year here, it has proven difficult to live in the present. I constantly worry about my future—where I will be working next year and with whom I will be living; whether I will actually make it to grad school as I always thought I would; and whether my path is eventually going to lead me back home to Paraguay. It is also hard to keep my mind off my past. I usually find myself doubting whether I should have put more effort into those classes or clubs; whether I should have let go of relationships that seemed to be going nowhere and held onto others on which I gave up despite their promise; and whether the version of myself which came into this place is more likeable than the one who is leaving it.

Perhaps I escape into the past or the future because I’m not particularly in love with the present. I sincerely acknowledge that there are ways in which I am privileged beyond words, but the fact that my struggles are objectively smaller than those of others does not negate that they are my own and does not invalidate how intensely I feel about them. Jesus offers rest to “all [those] who are weary and burdened,” regardless of the size or relative importance of our struggles. 3 Negative thoughts can be pervasive, and at points they have led me to disregard my work, relationships, and even basic human needs. Columbia has exceeded my expectations of a college experience, and sometimes I am truly able to appreciate this. But more frequently I am caught up in the daily pressure, frustration, and loneliness that comes with attending one of the most stressful schools in the country. 4 To me, the present rarely looks like the most hospitable place in which to live. But when I turn to the past or the future for comfort, they don’t strike me as welcoming either.

This search for peace might feel like wandering in a poorly-designed maze with no way out. But the Word of God does seem to reveal a preference for living in the present. The Bible outright calls us to forget the darkness that lies behind in Paul’s letter to the Philippians, 5 and not to worry about tomorrow in the Gospel of Matthew. 6 Yet Scripture doesn’t teach us to entirely disregard the past or the future either. The Old Testament prophets and the Psalms constantly remind Israel to look to their history in times of crises to see that God has always delivered them. 7 Jesus Himself calls us to reenact the Last Supper “in remembrance of [Him].” 8 Paul encourages us by saying that “the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us,” 9 referencing the future. And the entire book of Revelation blesses us 10 with further description of how this future will look.

Perhaps these passages do not intend to have us dwell in our past or our future, but rather they aim to sustain us through our present. The Bible is relevant to our daily lives insofar as it instructs us on how to navigate our days. Many of these guidelines take the form of commandments, which we can find throughout the Old and New Testaments. All of these are callings to be lived out today and every single day, which can seem more discouraging than supportive. Just ask any of us—who at a point in our lives did not closely follow Jesus—how many difficult things the Bible expects of us. Yet it is unfair to focus solely on these strict rules, for Scripture also offers significant encouragement. A psalm, an episode of Jesus’ ministry depicted in the gospels, or a section of the apostolic letters has the power to speak to the particular situation each of us is going through more than any other piece of writing. In this way, the Word of God commands and consoles us through our day to day.

So Christianity seems to agree (at least partially) with Nicki Minaj (sorry, Miley). But how can we redeem the present when it seems as grim as the past and the future? In his spiritual direction work Abandonment to the Divine Providence, 11 the French Jesuit priest Jean Pierre de Caussade proposes that the key is faithfulness to God’s will. De Caussade argues that God reveals His will for us through the immediate and momentary duties presented to us. De Caussade tells us, “Look at your life. It consists of nothing but an infinite number of unimportant actions. It is with these very things, so insignificant in themselves, that God is pleased and satisfied.” 12 Therefore, our call is to pursue holiness in our daily tasks. Jesus Himself tells us, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” 13 The greatest manifestation of our love for God is consistent dedication and obedience. Accomplishing our duties while following His commandments and avoiding sin is what de Caussade refers to as the “active” component of fidelity to God’s plan.

The other side of fidelity on which de Caussade expands is the “passive” one: “the loving acceptance of what God sends us at every moment.” 14 This might be read as a call to accept the negative, a precept with which we are all too familiar. De Caussade urges us to recognize what happens to us as the will of God, and therefore to submit to it. He challenges our possible resistance to God’s will with a series of questions: “If what God selects for you does not satisfy you, what other hand can serve you as you desire? . . . What more do you want? Since all that is good is here, why seek it elsewhere? Do you know better than God? . . . Can his wisdom and goodness be mistaken? . . . Do you think you will find peace by struggling against the Almighty?” 15 De Caussade’s implicit points, though difficult to interiorize, are insightful: no one else can offer all that God has the power to, and He knows exactly what to give us. Our questioning of God’s designs is comparable to a piece of stone instructing the sculptor on how to carve.

The most sensible thing we can ask from God is for the wisdom to recognize that everything that happens to us—even things we are unhappy with—is part of His will. We need to acknowledge that God is still in control, even when things are not the way we want them to be. The key is not to understand or agree with God’s designs, but to submit to them nevertheless. Jesus’ prayer on the Mount of Olives exemplifies this idea: when His death was approaching, a seemingly desperate Jesus told the Father that He wished to be spared; when the Father’s will remained unchanged, Jesus set aside His own wishes to carry out the will of the Father. Once Jesus did this, a heavenly angel appeared to strengthen Him. 16 When we, like Jesus, are faced with cups we want removed from us, we can turn to Him, and rejoice knowing that we “participate in His sufferings.” 17

Another implication of “passive” fidelity (and perhaps a less emphasized one) is the need to accept the good things God sends us. We are called to accept His love, which He has had for us since He formed us in our mother’s womb, 18 and will continue to have for “whoever has [His] commandments and keeps them.” 19 We are called to accept His grace, His forgiveness for our sins, no matter how major or how recent, on the basis of sincere repentance. 20 We are called to accept His peace, just as Jesus said, “Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid.” 21 “Passive” fidelity can be summarized in one of the best pieces of advice I have recently heard: “relax in God’s love.” God is completely aware that we are undeserving of His love, grace, and peace, but He still offers those to us every single day, and He wants us to relax and accept them.

According to De Caussade, the value of the present moment lies in that it “is always the ambassador who announces God’s plan.” 22 Let us submit ourselves to God’s plan then, so we can stop seeing the present as something from which to escape. Let us try to be content with the good and the bad that we get today, and have the confidence that they both come from God. Let us unceasingly echo the prayer from Psalm 90, which asks the Lord to balance our bad days with good ones and to assure us that our daily diligence is not futile:

“Satisfy us in the morning with your steadfast love,
that we may rejoice and be glad all our days.
Make us glad for as many days as you have afflicted us,
and for as many years as we have seen evil.
Let your work be shown to your servants,
and your glorious power to their children.
Let the favor of the Lord our God be upon us,
and establish the work of our hands upon us;
yes, establish the work of our hands!” 23

By helping us embrace our present, this framework of “active” and “passive” fidelity to God’s will can deter us from dwelling on our past and future, which might not be enough to eliminate severe anxiety or depression. But it can help get us through the day, and maybe even more.

Notes:

  1. http://www.theonion.com/article/mans-anxiety-not-about-to-let-depression-muscle-in-36504.
  2. Also from The Onion, http://www.theonion.com/article/depression-symptom-checklist-speaking-area-man-no–51251.
  3. Matthew 11:28.
  4. http://www.thedailybeast.com/galleries/2010/03/29/2011-s-most-stressful-colleges.html.
  5. Philippians 3:12-14.
  6. Matthew 6:34.
  7. For example, Isaiah 40 and Psalm 136.
  8. Luke 22:14-20.
  9. Romans 8:18.
  10. Revelation 1:3.
  11. Also published under the title of The Sacrament of the Present Moment.
  12. Jean-Pierre de Caussade, Abandonment to Divine Providence: The Classic Text with a Spiritual Commentary by Dennis Billy, C.Ss.R. (Notre Dame, IN: Ave Maria Press, Inc., 2010).
  13. John 14:15.
  14. Jean-Pierre de Caussade, Abandonment to Divine Providence: The Classic Text with a Spiritual Commentary by Dennis Billy, C.Ss.R. (Notre Dame, IN: Ave Maria Press, Inc., 2010).
  15. Ibid.
  16. Luke 22:39-43.
  17. Philippians 3:10.
  18. Psalm 139:13-18.
  19. John 14:21.
  20. Luke 17:3-4.
  21. John 14:27.
  22. Jean-Pierre de Caussade, Abandonment to Divine Providence: The Classic Text with a Spiritual Commentary by Dennis Billy, C.Ss.R. (Notre Dame, IN: Ave Maria Press, Inc., 2010).
  23. Psalm 90:14-17.