On Feeling Overwhelmed

Tonight something hit me as I drove across the Bay Bridge from an evening class in San Francisco to my home in Berkeley.

I was tired and stressed out, and I had turned off the radio as part of a half-hearted examen. The day had started well, a long time ago, with four hours of class in the morning, a mid-day trip across the Bay, time spent in meetings and studying in the afternoon, a quick dinner, and then my night class.  This schedule has been building for the past four weeks; each week brings a new piece. I thought I had carefully discerned each piece with my superiors—the basic theology program, the additional work in economics, helping out at a local parish, working out in the mornings at a gym. Moreover, as one of the veterans in the house, I have been spending a fair amount of time helping the newcomers in the middle of these things. This experience was nothing new for me, for God frequently invites me from tasks to relationships.

All of these things seem like they have come from God, but I haven’t been able to shake this paralyzing anxiety that would come over me at the most inopportune moments in recent days—while I was at work on a statistics assignment, praying in Mass, or even spending time with friends. I have been trying to take the anxiety to prayer, asking the Lord what it meant. Had I overcommitted myself? Did I take on too much too fast without listening to the Lord’s voice in my discernment?  This same anxiety had come over me during class this evening, as I looked at the homework assignment and wondered, when will I ever find time to do this. At one moment I felt interest and excitement as I watched the professor apply a math concept I had taught high school students (exponential growth) to something I care about (the situation of the poor). The next moment, as he invited us to start work on the homework assignment during the last hour of class, I could hardly breathe.

In the Spiritual Exercises, Ignatius is famous for respecting and not interfering with an individual’s experience of God. In only one point does he advise the director to interfere more, “when the one who is giving the exercises perceives that the exercitant is not affected by any spiritual experiences, such as consolations or desolations, he ought to ply him with questions about the exercises” (SpEx 6). In other words, the normal situation of a person of prayer is to experience a diversity of spirits. Ignatian spirituality aims to illuminate them, but not eliminate them, to allow the person to choose freely, but to retain their freedom.

As I asked the Lord for illumination into my own life, I saw the spirits clearly: a spirit of excitement about this night class contrasted with a spirit of anxiety about the extra work, a spirit inviting me to a difficult but fruitful conversation with a community member contrasted with a spirit of fear about the vulnerability it would require, a spirit of compassion for my professor, who is doing his best, contrasted with a spirit of criticism because I don’t think he’s taught this course before and he’s only a few years older than I am. In each of these cases, the good spirit led me to life and relationship—with myself, with others, with God and God’s dream for me. The evil spirit undermined those choices by raising doubts: for me, it’s typically a lot of the same movements: anxiety, fear, and criticism.

My own spiritual director has reminded me often: whenever there is a movement of consolation, an invitation to deeper relationship with God and others, there is often a countermovement that seeks to undermine our relationships. With this knowledge in mind, I have tried to get in the habit to ask for God’s grace to see both movements in situations like this.

As the landscape of my own interior life came into focus, I asked the Lord about what I was noticing. Trust me, I could hear him saying. You enjoyed the course material tonight and had some fruitful conversations with your classmates, who seem genuinely curious about this Jesuit who is taking classes with them, he reminded me. They seem as lost as you, and maybe you could work together with them and befriend them along the way. Remember this afternoon, when you spent twice as long as you planned reading about poverty and inequality in the Jesuit community because you were so engrossed in the material.

The opposite of trust is control, and lately I have noticed myself obsessively trying to plan next semester’s course schedule. I brought that to the Lord, and he said in reply: trust yourself, for a decision made in consolation should not be changed in desolation. Remember your experience teaching high school geometry, when you felt overwhelmed for a whole year and then loved teaching the course the following year. You too will learn to love this subject too. I calmed down a bit, and asked him, “is there anything else?” Yes, he replied. Turn on the music and enjoy the drive home. Don’t worry about any of this stuff this evening.

As he said this, I came out of a tunnel and looked up to see the bright lights of the Bay Bridge illuminate the dark water below, a physical reminder of a spiritual reality. Another snippet of the Rules for Discernment of Spirits came to mind: the third reason we experience desolation is “because God wishes to give us a true knowledge and understanding of ourselves, so that we may have an intimate perception of the fact that it is not within our power to acquire and attain great devotion, intense love, tears, or any other spiritual consolation; but that all this is the gift and grace of God our Lord” (SpEx 322). Every time I cross the bridge, several times a week, I never fail to feel gratitude that I live in a beautiful place.