Father Leonard Peterson
One fine afternoon recently I found myself absent-mindedly thinking “Ak mah DINNY job.” Those are my homemade phonetics for the name of Iran’s beleaguered president. What a strange array of syllables. What a peculiar name for Western diction to pronounce. Yet we know it well. It challenges the difficulty of King Nebuchadnezzer.
That incident brought to mind how the 24/7 news cycle has not only made such strange names familiar, but also made their antics a possible source of stress. When we learn of another threatening speech or another nuclear test, stress happens. These and other domestic stories, even involving people with easier names, can affect us negatively. Maybe even damage our outlook on life. Ultimately, optimism takes a back seat, and we smile less.
The plain fact of the matter is that we ordinary folk can do little about Iranian elections or international terrorism. Nor can we eliminate child abuse, cop killings or abortion. But we can try to avoid stress.
In an online article addressed to doctors about communicating bad news to their patients, Drs. Anthony L. Back and J. Randall Curtis, associate professors at the University of Washington School of Medicine in Seattle, wrote the following to their fellow doctors: “A useful definition of bad news is that it ‘results in a cognitive, behavioral, or emotional deficit in the person receiving the news that persists for some time after the news is received.’ Thus, the determination of what news is bad constitutes a subjective judgment in the mind of the receiver, so that when physicians assume they are delivering bad news, they may influence patients’ responses.”
As receivers of instant news, we labor under the media presumption that it’s always bad. Granted, bad news raises ratings and sells papers. Good news doesn’t sell soup or Cialis. So up goes our personal “stress meter.”
How much news we need to know is a question. On some days, I am tempted to avoid the newspaper or turn off the radio and the TV. But why upset myself with news of a dictator’s rants? Or another horrible car accident? Or a drug bust in an unsuspecting, leafy suburb?
Yet to refuse the news is to lose. Away goes a reason to thank God for my country and a lot more. And if the opportunity arises to join others who marshal together to resist the progress of evil somewhere, I have to be informed of what the evil is. Knowing about abortion, teen suicide, Iranian disquiet, African genocide, political chicanery and a host of other news items sharpens my focus on what to pray about and how I might otherwise help.
Removing a lot of the stress in our lives might even be helped by not yielding to it. There are means that help, but they may not always be best. There isn’t a pill for every ill.
Prayer is one of the most effective coping mechanisms of all, but it isn’t tried. Perhaps because it isn’t always fast enough for an e-mail world. Or it seems impractical to our usual American way of thinking. This truth has to grow on you. A derivative wisdom comes with practice. Yet it is the formula of the saints, and they were quite practical people. In this Year of the Priest I know I must work on rejuvenating the place of prayer in my own life. Stress can come in buckets to the modern pastor.
A sense of balance guides us to that legendary middle path that wise people take who know that everything is in the hands of a much wiser and infinitely loving God. They are serious where it counts, and yet they can also laugh at life. If that sounds like the description of saints like Catherine of Siena or Thomas More, Katherine Drexel or John Neumann, so be it.
Those people are models for all our seasons as well as their own. In this context, they can be viewed as authentic “stress reducers.” I’m also glad it is easy to pronounce their names.
Father Peterson is pastor of St. Maria Goretti Parish in Hatfield.