October 20, 2019

Question: I am feeling hopeless. Looking around at our country at large and my local community it is clear there is a social breakdown happening that is threatening relationships all around me. There is such division, tension, and instability in personal identity, family life and politics yet my friends seem so numb to it not caring about its effects or objective truth. I understand our gift of feminine genius and ability to contribute to human flourishing, but how do I make a difference when I feel like no one cares?

Dear sister,

I really feel your heartache in all of this. What you say is right: things are tough right now. If you have a sensitive spirit and a big heart, social realities weigh heavily. Abortion, euthanasia, divorce, abuse of children, the hook-up culture, poverty, disease, natural disasters not to mention war and atrocities in many parts of the world. What came to mind when I first read your question is what John Paul II was so fond of repeating: do not be afraid! (You can see an example here.)

The longer I have pondered the message of St. John Paul, the more I have been convinced of its importance for us. Fear has many effects on us, all of them toxic. Stress, for instance, and confusion. When we are afraid, we don’t think clearly and it’s hard to see things in proportion. All of this paralyzes us.

I have a baby boy who is 11 months old. He has just learned to climb up stairs, and he often starts up them eagerly. But about two-thirds of the way up, he stops and looks back, sees the huge set of steps behind him, and becomes terrified. He doesn’t know how to come back down. And his fear keeps him from moving forward. He begins to panic and cry. When I rescue him he calms down immediately, and his good spirit returns. And this, I think, is the message of the Gospel, the message of St. John Paul the Great. Be not afraid! A savior is coming. He has conquered the world. He will lift you up and hold you!

Notice something important about this. A mom who rescues a stray little one doesn’t say: baby, the stairs are small, don’t worry. No, she scoops up her little one to comfort his distress. Of course, the stairs are small for her, and she knows that in time her child will learn to handle them, with her help. But in the moment of trial, her motherly heart seeks only to comfort, to save.

Just so with Our Savior, Jesus. He doesn’t say that our problems are small. If they were small we wouldn’t need a Savior. Instead he says trust in me. I’ve got you.

What has all of this to do with your hopelessness? Only that hopelessness comes from a certain kind of forgetting that there is a Savior. We find ourselves a little stuck, a little overwhelmed, a little crushed by things, a little bit stuck on that high stair. We can’t go forward, we can’t go back. Fear and negative emotions overwhelm us.

The good news is that you don’t have to think your way out of this. Possibly the last thing you can do well in the midst of hopelessness is think. I said that hopelessness was based on a certain kind of forgetting that we have a Savior. I didn’t mean that you are literally forgetting, but as a Catholic community I think we have often forgotten how to hold out our hands for the Savior. So there we are, stuck on the stairs, and we don’t know how to call for help.

I’m going to get to some very practical advice in a moment, but I wanted to put it in this context, because the language of the Gospel is so much this: that we should become like little children, that we should see Jesus as our shepherd and we the lost sheep. It is little to raise our hands and cry out for mom on the stairs. It is little to wander closer to the shepherd. It is little to try humble things instead of big things. And yet, this is the structure of reality as God created us, it’s how we are made. And it’s how we nurture our feminine genius.

So here is my practical advice, advice that worked for me at one of the lowest parts of my life, when things seemed dark, confusing, and unsure. I was twenty-two years old, had no idea where my life was going or what I was supposed to do next. I was in graduate school but I still felt directionless. I only knew that I wanted to help somehow, that I wanted to be a gift to others, that I wanted to make a difference.

In complete desperation, weary of thinking through things, I got the idea to just get myself into Church every day, where I could see the Blessed Sacrament, Jesus in the tabernacle, and I asked for His help to see what I should do. I asked Him Lord, show me the way. Sometimes I prayed this prayer after catching a daily Mass; other times I just stopped in. I thought that I wasn’t strong enough to pray, so I just put myself physically in the presence of God. I went into His house and asked for the grace to see. What I didn’t know then is that I was praying! That simple act was a physical, bodily cry for help like my baby on the stairs who throws his hands into the air as if to say pick me up!

So, here is a simple plan to start to climb out of hopelessness:

1 Put yourself into the presence of God every day, at a Church, or an adoration chapel; aim for just a five-minute check-in. You have to be with Him, you have to crawl onto His lap and He can fix everything in those moments. We are physical and Our Savior is physical.

2 When you are in His presence, do two things: first, make an act of hope say, Jesus, I hope in you! Jesus, I trust in you! Second, pray to see what you can do to make a difference in the suffering of the world. One saint that I know of recommended the short prayer Lord, that I may see! Domine, ut videam!

3 Do all of this, as much as possible, without thinking. Try to do it the way you go to the store when you need milk (or coffee!). You don’t think. You assess your need. I need coffee. And you get a coffee. This is just the same: you need God. So you go to Him.

The world is starving from a lack of God. Sister, you are feeling this, and it weighs on you. The only way to start remedying this is to be the change that the world needs. Humanity as a whole can’t have a relationship with God. He is a lover who loves your soul and needs your soul as he loves and needs all the other souls he has made.

And when you go to Him in prayer, it will spill over to others: you will become better because he will change you; and you’ll start to see how you can use your unique gifts and talents to make things better around you. You probably won’t be asked to start a religious order in India (though you might be!); and you probably won’t be told to go to South Africa as a missionary (though you might be!). But whatever it is, God will inspire your heart with your own personal mission for the salvation of the world, a mission that is totally you, and totally yours. And you’ll set out with the confidence of a woman in love.

Trust me, this works. You’ve got this. Because He’s got you.