Posted by: mmreflections | October 10, 2008

Approval Ratings: October, 2008

 “Whatever you do, work at it with your whole being.  Do it for the Lord rather than for men, since you know full well you will receive an inheritance from him as your reward.”  (Colossians 3:23-24) 

These words of St. Paul have offered me a great challenge.  Much of my early life has been overshadowed by a subtle feeling of frustration borne from an unconscious need for approval, acceptance and affirmation.  As a child it was related to a need for my mom’s approval and right along with this was the need for God’s approval.  They seemed to go hand in hand.  When school days began, it had become a need for the teacher’s approval and acceptance by my classmates.  It seemed I was always trying too hard to have this elusive need fulfilled, often resulting in my doing or acting in ways which lacked integrity.  Trying to please others by doing and saying things that were contrary to what I believed was proper eroded my self-esteem and increased my anxieties, frustrations and fears.  This created a pattern which was to become deeply ingrained in the way my life situations were being managed.

The years in college seemed to intensify this need for approval and acceptance but no matter how I tried, it seemed my efforts were not enough.  A little criticism would easily bring about a heaviness and sadness, destroying any semblance of peace or joy.  Reflecting on this period of my life, I realize that all this was happening on an unconscious level; I was unhappy and moody but didn’t even consider the reason for the frustration, sadness and boredom I was experiencing.  The joy and peace of the Lord was not something with which I was in touch.  A false joy and temporary satisfaction came from going along with the crowd.

As my teaching career unfolded I found myself less preoccupied with my own concerns and gave myself quite generously to the needs of the students.  Those were the days when I found myself truly happy, especially in little successful moments when some efforts to help someone proved fruitful. The years served in the military were also characterized by this same satisfaction as I learned about being part of a team and standing up for and standing by others in need.  Life in the seminary, which followed my days in the army, were filled with much joy, peace and happiness as I studied with the other men who aspired to do something to make our world a better place and to embrace the life which Jesus taught us.  I didn’t realize how much better life is when we are less preoccupied with ourselves and thinking of others.

After being ordained to the priesthood and starting my priestly service, all seemed to be well for a short period of time.  As I mentioned in a previous reflection, the honeymoon quickly came to an end.  I found myself in much the same place as I was as a child with regard to the need for approval, acceptance and affirmation.  The slightest criticism was enough to pull me down into the dark moods I once knew.  I learned how to smile generously to please others but inside there was much pain.  All this was unfolding on an unconscious level.  I worked harder at my priestly tasks, not taking days off, not eating properly, pushing myself to the limit until I became ill and ended up in the hospital.  The doctors told me I was allowing myself to get stressed out.  It became necessary for me to start taking medicine to deal with high blood pressure.  It seemed I was too young to be dealing with these medical issues.

In these early years of priesthood I had to learn a very painful lesson which would make a great impact on the rest of my life.  There was this great need for approval and acceptance by the bishops and members of the parish community in which I served.  I rarely heard a bishop offer a word of gratitude or approval.  More often people in the parish were quick to offer criticism rather than a word of affirmation or encouragement.  I was told my job was to serve the Lord and be of support to the people, forgetting myself and putting aside any selfishness or self-centered behavior.  At one of our annual priestly retreats, I had an opportunity to speak to the retreat facilitator who was also an old friend of mine.  I spoke to him about this issue and about how rarely, if ever, I received a pat on the back from the bishop or the people I served.  I pointed out how quick they were to offering criticism but how slow to say, “Thank you!”  My dear friend, a very holy man, asked the question, “Why is it we seek approval and acceptance from those who are incapable of giving it?”  He went on to remind me that the only approval we really need is from God and we already have that.  We are God’s sons and daughters and we are loved just as we are beyond our wildest imaginations. 

It seemed like I had been hit with a flash of light in that moment.  I had been looking for approval and acceptance from those who were incapable of giving it.  I was living on the second rung of the ladder and missing out on the joy, peace and happiness that comes with following the Lord.  A strange thing happened when I became consciously aware of how I had been living my life up until this moment.  When I stopped seeking or trying to get approval and acceptance from others I began to experience a new peace and joy.  I found myself delighting in God’s love for me and in knowing I was already accepted and approved.   I was now at peace with every aspect of my own personality and character, even embracing my flaws and imperfections with the knowledge that only God would remove them when and as he saw fit. I found myself generously expressing gratitude for the smallest kindness. I discovered the joy of approving and affirming others and seeing their eyes light up with appreciation.

I discovered that the symptoms of living unconsciously on the first rung of the spiritual ladder leading to a deeper union with the Holy One are fear, anxiety and worry about not having enough to meet our daily needs.  For me the symptoms of living unconsciously on the second rung of the spiritual ladder are frustration and irritability arising from a great need for approval, acceptance and affirmation.  In living unconsciously on these levels we are most apt to miss the mark as God’s children and are prone to behavior in thoughts, words and actions that will pull us down and destroy our peace of mind and joy of heart.  When we find ourselves worried, anxious and afraid it is important for us to pay attention and become aware of the source.  The same goes for those moments when we feel frustrated and irritated with our life situations.  Once we become consciously aware of these symptoms and their source, we are less likely to give into temptations that would destroy our happiness.  It is also more likely we will take this opportunity to do something positive and beneficial for others. 

We can not be truly happy on the lower rungs of this spiritual ladder that leads to living in the kingdom of God which brings us love, joy, peace, gratitude, generosity, kindness, mercy, forgiveness and understanding.  The upcoming reflection will consider what I have learned to be for me the next rung of the ladder on which I with so many others have unconsciously lived and which keeps us from the happiness God would have us enjoy.

Remember that you have been called to live in freedom – but not a freedom that gives free rein to the flesh.  Out of love, place yourselves at one another’s service.  The whole law has found its fulfillment in this one saying:  “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”  You should live in accord with the spirit and you will not yield to the cravings of the flesh.  The fruit of the spirit is love, joy, peace, patient endurance, kindness, generosity, faith, mildness, and chastity.  Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified their flesh with its passions and desires.  Since we live by the spirit, let us follow the spirit’s lead.   (Confer Galatians 5: 13-26)

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