Back in the early 1990s I suffered a series of very difficult health crises that, as often happens when illness strikes, made me very self-focused. Once the physiological dimensions of that crisis had been addressed, I continued to be plagued by a self-obsessed hypochondria that made getting along in day to day life very difficult. I’ll never forget the day when I called my doctor in Boston to report my new “dire” symptoms. He was very firm and very direct. Among other things, he said,
Tom, it’s time to move on and stop naval gazing. Go out of your house, get back to work, get out of yourself, do something for somebody who’s got real problems. Right now that’s the best medicine I have for you.
I found that, within a short amount of time, his prescription worked wonders. While there certainly is a time for self-care and a time for other-care, and there always must be a balance between the two, other-care as self-care is the Christian secret to flourishing. A therapist I know said she always begins with clients by writing two prescriptions: one that requires 20 minutes of un-distracted silence every day, and the other that requires doing something for someone “worse off than you” every day. The first, she says, allows hidden inner turmoil to rise to the surface so it can be dealt with directly, while the second allows her clients to experience for themselves that love is key to mental health. “And if my client is a person of faith,” she adds, “I invite them to be silent with God and, when the junk rises to the surface, to give it to Him.”
That reminds me of the A.R.R.R. method taught to seminarians at the Institute for Priestly Formation. In your time of silent prayer, Acknowledge what thoughts-feelings-desires arise within the time of quiet, Relate them openly and gently to God, Receive from God the graces He wishes to give in response to your heart’s inner stirrings, and then Respond to those graces with a concrete plan of action that moves you from yourself to the world around you. It’s a very powerful discipline if you make it into a habit. In particular, I find it very fruitful when, in the midst of the day, I find myself knocked off balance by something and I need to recenter in God. Even taking 10 minutes to be alone in a bathroom stall, or stepping outdoors for a brief walk — wherever you can get away to! — to employ this method helps me to recenter and reengage the world, replanting my feet firmly on the Rock before returning to the storms of life.
Let me leave you with a prescription written by Dr. Peter Kreeft:
The very first step is to try to forget about the self altogether. C.S. Lewis says…that that’s the very definition of humility. Humility does not mean to have a low view of your self. It means to have no view of yourself. Having a low view of yourself is miserable–psychologists know that. And that’s also the solution to the problem of introspection. If I ask myself, how am I doing, I come out with one of three answers: well, terribly, or so-so.
If I say I’m doing well, I’m a proud, self-righteous, arrogant, self-satisfied, priggish Pharisee; if I say I’m doing lousy, I’m a miserable worm with a guilt complex and I need some psychiatry; and if i say I’m sort of fair to midland then I’m dull, wishy-washy, Charlie Brown. So what’s the solution? Don’t look at yourself. Take your temperature when you’re sick, otherwise look at other people and God. They’re much more interesting. The first step is to try to forget about yourself altogether. Your real self, your new self, will not come as long as you are looking for it. It will come only when you’re looking for Him.