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“Choice is praised for being related to the right object.”
Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics

I have spent a bit of time this week thinking about different kinds of stress. We feel stress when there is a conflict between things that we desire.

What really strikes me is that there is a distinction that comes before other distinctions in kinds of stress. Prior to managing our stressful situations-—which is a very important thing to learn how to do—-we need first to ask a basic question about our desires that are in conflict. Sometimes we will find that our desire, or in other words our heart, is not in the right place.

Commonly today we miss this point, since our culture tells us that we can pretty much want whatever we choose to want. It also tells us that we can have it all–simultaneously. So we skip directly to managing the stress, seeking to deal with the conflicts in our desires, rather than evaluating the desires themselves.

But what if we want things we shouldn’t? What if there is dis-order in what we want? In other words, what if our actual desires are in conflict with the deeper needs and desires of our hearts? According to the great tradition on ethics and the good life, such dis-order and conflict will itself be a deeper cause of stress and indeed of unhappiness.

Consider two fathers. The first puts his wife and children before his career. This man may indeed experience stress in certain conflicts between career and home, but this stress is in a context of a right order of desires.

The second father, though certainly a very decent person, has fallen prey to common pressures in society today and desires success in the business world more than he should. He still wants to have a good relationship with his spouse and children, but this latter desire often takes a second place to the former. This man might not feel as stressed by long hours away from home as the first father does. But he will have the stress and unhappiness of things being out of place in his heart and in his life.

So what is the point here? I think that the first step in analyzing and addressing stress in our lives is to ask: what desires are at the root of the stress? And then we ask ourselves: is it good and reasonable that I/we want these things?

This point is especially applicable to children. Parents will need to be aware of the stresses that arise in our children—and therefore also in us!—because of desires that youth culture arouses in them. Our children often experience deep conflicts, indeed even torturous ones, between the culture of our home and the culture around them. This is often not their fault. They find themselves desiring things that are constantly put before them, if for no other reason than simply so they can fit in, which in itself is not an unreasonable desire!

In reality, the same thing is going on in adults: we are, understandably, being drawn toward things that are less than desirable, if not downright wrong.

The conclusion here is not that all stress is caused in us by our disordered desires. No indeed. The real conclusion is that our first step in addressing the stresses of our life is to examine whether our heart itself, or of those whom we love and care for, needs to be gently redirected.

Put otherwise, the response to some stress should be to seek an interior change of heart. What things do we desire, and what things should we desire? Where is our heart?

When we discern that a stress is not rooted in a disorder in our heart, then and only then should we ask what can be done in the external forum to address this situation. So then we need to look for structures in our life—whether imposed by exterior circumstances or by the patterns of our own actions—that militate against our rightly ordered desires. And there are plenty of such structures today. Next week let us begin to examine some.

Author’s Note: Last week I expressed my intention to do a series reflecting on stress and its causes, and I solicited input from readers on stressful situations. I was deeply moved by the response. Indeed, I came to understand my own situation better by hearing about others’ situations. I have collated the suggestions—and more are always welcome—and am planning a more extensive series than I had anticipated. I am grateful for such gracious and thought-provoking input and suggestions.

Aristotle (384-322 B.C.), student of Plato, tutor of Alexander the Great, has been considered by many to be the greatest ancient philosopher. The Nicomachean Ethics is his major ethical work.

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