Imagine that inside of you is a mysterious, hidden landscape. Your favorite people and places reside there, as do characters from real life and from books and movies you have seen. Your greatest fears lurk in the shadows, and the weather changes with your mood. A king rules the land and controls the little dramas that play out day-to-day. A poor ruler is willful and impassioned and doesn’t control his borders, so evil people work their way into his advisory council and monsters ravage his lands. A good ruler is welcoming but firm, reasoned but not insensitive, and wise and just. We crown the ruler of this secret place, or, frequently, we don’t choose a king, and the loudest, most charismatic contender wins.
This interior landscape is just a way of looking at the inner life of our soul. We would certainly love it to be all sunshine, harmony and roses. But sometimes it feels as though we are not in control of this hidden kingdom. Perhaps you would like to be. It helps to be a little technical first to see how we are able to be in charge. By our very nature, we are made in the image and likeness of God (Gn 1:26). This means at the most basic level that we have the freedom to choose our actions and the ability to understand them. Our soul has an intellect, through which we understand truth, and a will, which allows us to be attracted towards something good and act on that desire. Let’s imagine that each of these powers is a great lord in our hidden land, and they can fight together as friends or be at odds and vie for control of the kingdom.
Now, in an ideal world, both our intellect and our will focus on something true and good. But, often the intellect and will arenot in sync. For example, it is easy to desire with our mind to have a productive day, but we find ourselves doing any small task other than the one we ought to finish. This inner conflict is a common theme throughout humanity, and even St. Paul struggled with it. He said, “What I do, I do not understand. For I do not do what I want, but I do what I hate” (Rom 7:15). Sometimes this happens because our desire for comfort or approval is stronger than our commitment to what we know is truly good. To return to our inner landscape analogy, we have allowed a weak king intoxicated by passion to rule our land! When the disciples couldn’t stay awake to pray in the garden with Jesus, he acknowledged, “The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak” (Mt 26:41). So, if we desire peace and if we recognize there’s a problem when we try to do good things, how do we fix it?
We often feel a lack of peace for three main reasons:
1. What we think is true is a lie or only partially true.
2. What we desire is not good or is a lesser or tainted good.
3. Our feelings are too powerful for our minds to control our desires and actions.
Have you ever found out something you thought was true was false and felt like your world was rocked? In moments
like this, we realize how much our thoughts affect our actions. It’s easy to assume that we know everything necessary to make a good choice, but too often we only look for answers in places that echo our own feelings. We must stop to align our emotions and our inner world with reality. We can do this by developing logic skills, researching and turning to the wisdom of the Catholic Church. Since God is the source of truth, the first apostles and leaders of the Church focused on applying Christ’s teachings to everyday situations. That means that a blueprint has already been set, and learning more about what the Church teaches actually gives you greater freedom to know that you are making choices based on centuries of thought and practice, rather than relying only on your own experience. In contrast, the devil likes to use lies to discourage us. When you hear a subtle voice (or maybe a loud one from a person in front of you) telling you that you are not enough, not valued or not called to do beautiful things with your life, that is the Father of Lies speaking. Replace those lies with truths that come from Scripture and prayer. And crown Reason, or better yet, Christ, the Word of God, as the king of your heart.
The next step is understanding what is actually good. God is good. Things that exist are good (supposedly, this includes mosquitoes and people who click pens). Things and actions that preserve the existence and thriving of a created being are good. For example, water and light are good for trees to grow. And for humans who can think, laugh and love, virtues and moral actions that serve the rights of others are good too. This is beyond a Darwinian concept of success, but we can see that virtues like self-control, patience and generosity help human community to thrive and lead to inner happiness for those who act virtuously.
All of these categories seem clear enough, but often, in the real world, a myriad of things that are not always good for us seem good. These are called “perceived goods,” because we see the temporary benefit to ourselves, but we miss the larger picture. Sin falls into this broader category of false goods too. Sin seems good in the moment. It seems like telling a lie will get us out of trouble and be harmless. It seems like watching the same trashy TV show as everyone else will help you make friends. We can play out a false narrative in our minds where it will all work out OK. But every action leaves an imprint in our soul. If perceived goods are not of God, who is goodness himself, they will end up leading us to frustration and emptiness. There is a hierarchy of goods. And in order to exercise our free will judiciously, we have to make a conscious choice to pick the higher good when possible. And we use our intellects to find which good is most true.
So how to determine and choose what is true and good? We use our intellect to overcome our will in those hard moments where a false good is all too tempting. We make small sacrifices and choices every day, and eventually, we begin to desire true goods with both our intellect and will.
This is hard to do and requires breaking many habits. Much of our life is spent acting subconsciously. Various studies report that anywhere from 40-95 percent of our daily actions and thought processes rely on habit rather than conscious thought. This is necessary to save energy. In fact, if you have good habits like getting out of bed on time or washing your hair in an effective way, it makes life easier by not having to reinvent the wheel every morning. But, it takes courage to reflect on those wellworn ruts in our minds and bodies and to examine if they are serving the good. Making a decision always requires saying “no” to something else. And when we’re choosing between a perceived good that we feel would be easier, more comfortable or more popular, and a true good that requires some personal growth or discomfort, it’s understandable why we slip back into old habits so easily.
Sometimes our habits actually promote indecision. Studies on social media show that our brains can become addicted to the dopamine rush in the reward centers of our brains every time we get a “like” on a post. It becomes increasingly easy to craft our image in the false likeness of what is considered attractive or trending. And our true passions, face-to-face relationships and real-time opportunities for goodness fade or are lost. This is not a recipe for peace or fulfillment. We have to be on guard for things, even things we perceive as partially good, that trap our attention away from the present moment, rob us of our emotional energy, and steal our peace.
It’s important to note that health concerns affect this delicate balance between the intellect and the will too. If you are overtired, ill, stressed, anxious or intoxicated, it is difficult to think clearly, discern between true goods and perceived goods, and overcome your bodily desires and negative emotions. Mental and hormonal imbalances can also make it a challenge to maintain interior clarity and self-control. This doesn’t make you a bad person or less holy. But it is a sign that you may need help to achieve greater balance and peace. Self-care frees us to be the best version of ourselves and to serve others with greater availability. But, seasons of suffering are also meaningful on our path to holiness, because our efforts towards goodness require greater love.
God is truth and goodness, so in him lies the fundamental unity and authenticity that we seek to emulate in ourselves. When God became man, he invited us into his creative project, enabling us to participate in making the world a better place by uniting our small actions and efforts with his work of love. As we reflect on the Incarnation during that “Silent Night,” we sing, “all is calm, all is bright.” Perhaps this was his invitation to us too—to calm the tyranny of our passions and desires and to allow him to brighten our inner landscape with the light of Truth. Finish a project you have only begun, check in on a friend who has been struggling, take five minutes for some needed self-care to energize you for your day and ask the Prince of Peace for his gentle leadership in your life today (Is 9:6).
Are you consciously making choices for good? Ask yourself…
Have I changed my opinions, clothing, diet and habits to mirror those of my friends?
Did I have a good reason to change or was it just easier to fit in?
Do I read books or articles or listen to podcasts from people with whom I disagree to understand their point of view?
Do I work on my habits to improve myself, or do I just put myself in a box and say limiting things like, “I’m just not a morning person. I can’t handle nature. I am not an athletic person. I’m not a book person. I don’t like politics. I can’t. I won’t.I will never.”?
Who am I trying to impress?
Who have been my biggest influences and mentors? Do I have someone with steady, Christ-centered values mentoring me now?
Does my schedule reflect my priorities? Is there time for prayer planned into my day to help me find God’s voice amid the noise?
When was the last time I went to confession for forgiveness, clarity and healing?