A former parishioner I hadn't heard from in 20 years telephoned me recently. There was a certain desperation in her voice. I remembered that she had been a youth in one of my churches. “Dr. Brady,” she said, “I am under great stress. My problem is twofold: my husband drinks and my father is ill and very dependent. In addition, my family has had a drug and alcohol problem. My brothers have been in trouble with the law and my parents frequently say to me, ‘You are our shining light. We keep going because of you. In you, we did something right,’”
Then my friend tearfully paused and said, “Dr. Brady, I fear that I will let them down.”
Perfection is a tremendous burden for a 33-year-old wife and daughter to try to carry. With that burden added to other family problems, no wonder she is under great stress.
Stress, however, is not limited to my former parishioner. From time to time, stress keeps every one of us under lock and key. We all serve time in that dungeon.
Recently, in a “Dear Abby” column, I read of a woman in her twenties who was a responsible only child. She was just finishing two university degrees, had nothing to do with drugs, and was on a promising career track. Because she was responsible, her entire family, including parents, uncles and aunts, were looking to her for moral support and guidance. The young woman was stressed out and because everything was weighing heavily on her needed the advice of “Dear Abby” (Jeanne Phillips).
Whether we like it or not, we live in a fast-moving world. We are living in an age of advance, but we are also paying a heavy price for that advance, especially in terms of stress. Stress that works itself out in tranquilizers, explosive tempers, hypertension, heart attacks, nervous disorders, fatigue, frustration, premature death, and more; the list is endless.
So what is stress? Without going into a lengthy definition, let me just say that the word in Latin for stress is “strictus,” which means “to be drawn tight.” A woman defined stress this way, “It's like spinning on the edge of a whirlpool – faster and faster, till I wonder how much longer I can keep from being sucked down.”
So how can we handle stress? Here are a few suggestions.
First, carry a minimum of interior baggage! Frequently, we moderns get so involved in dealing with the outward causes of stress that we forget all about the more important interior causes. It's so easy to blame our stress on the boss ... the job ... the neighbor ... “those other people” ... the politician ... the situation. While all the time we ignore the real problem which is within our own hearts and minds. So much of today's stress is caused by interior monsters – guilt, greed, envy, bitterness, jealously and resentment.
Second, practice self-discipline! Much stress is caused by a lack of order in one's life. Helter-skelter living may have its moments alright, but generally leads to frustration and stress.
Annie Dillard, in her book, “The Writing Life,” commented on the importance of having a daily schedule. She stated, “A schedule defends from chaos and whim ... A schedule is a peace and a haven set into the wreck of time; it is a lifeboat on which you find yourself decades later, still living .”
Third, cultivate a good sense of humor! Laughter is one of the best ways to manage our stress –both as individuals and as a society. If we can't laugh at ourselves and with others, we are in trouble. One of the real dangers in our modern-day society is that we are losing our ability to laugh. For the most part, we are uptight, and we are living in a society of uptight people. And that is leading to great danger.
Hear me now! Laughter is one of the most relaxing things we can do. Laughter dismantles tension.
We should note in the scripture that even God had a sense of humor. For example, what is funnier than 90-year-old Sarah having a baby or Noah building an ark in the scorched desert?
And fourth, keep a quiet time! The late Henry Sloan Coffin once stated that if the First Commandment were being written today, it would probably read, “Thou shalt have at least one God.” Stressed out people need to hear that word: “Thou shalt have at least one God.” We make a serious mistake if we think we can handle our stress on our own. Without God, we are like a lamp not plugged into the Source of our power.
What did the psalmist say? He said, “Be still and know that I am God” (Psalm 46:10). There is a critical connection between being still, knowing God, and handling stress. Try it and you’ll see.
Dr. Hal Brady is a retired pastor who continues to present the Good News of Jesus Christ and offer encouragement in a fresh and vital way though Hal Brady Ministries (www.halbradyministries.com).