So many things concern us in our daily lives. We worry about our finances, health, security, and relationships. And there is so much in life that angers us: crime, corruption, and many forms of abuse. Often we feel helpless. It seems as if the world is a mess and there is not much that one individual can do.
When Jesus said, “Be of good cheer, I have overcome the world” (John 16:33), what did that mean? Did it mean something significant changed two thousand years ago so that now the world is less of a mess than it was then? Do we really expect that the world will get better and better?
We can’t help admiring people who work for change in the world. We cheer those who try to improve conditions. Habitat for Humanity, a wonderful organization, builds houses for poor people. The future homeowners themselves work on construction along with volunteers from all walks of life.
It is touching to see these volunteers, former President Jimmy Carter among them, hammering nails and sawing wood and making sure people have a decent place to live. It is wonderful to see people doing what they can to make the world a better place.
But if everyone had adequate housing, would that solve the problems of the world? In some cases, life actually becomes worse when your external circumstances improve.
I used to visit parts of England, and one of my ports of call was Manchester, a northern industrial town. I visited a woman who lived alone in a Manchester slum district. I marveled at how the neighbors would come and go from her house. Anyone on that street who had a problem would come to see her. When a child was born, she would act as a midwife or bring food. They called her the Mayor of Coronation Street because she was so involved in these people’s lives.
In many ways, life in this district was pathetic. The housing was poor and the people had little income. But there was a positive spirit, and this woman was very much a part of it. After years of living in this slum, she was acknowledged for what she had done and was provided with government housing. She moved into a beautiful house. It was nice and clean.
When I visited her in her new house, I found her depressed and alone. She had nothing to do. She had no role in life and no one depended on her; there were no emergencies for her to look after. She would look out the window and see strangers walk by. She had an awful sense of guilt. She didn’t feel she deserved that beautiful home. She died soon after that. In a way, it broke her heart to leave the slum.
In his book The City of Joy (1985), author Dominique Lapierre describes life in Calcutta, one of the largest slums on earth:
Everything in these slums combined to drive their inhabitants to abjection and despair: shortage of work and chronic unemployment, appallingly low wages, the inevitable child labor, the impossibility of saving, debts that could never be redeemed, the mortgaging of personal possessions and their ultimate loss sooner or later. There was also the total nonexistence of any reserve food stocks and the necessity to buy in minute quantities—one cent’s worth of salt, two or three cents’ worth of wood, one match, a spoonful of sugar—and the total absence of privacy with ten or twelve people sharing a single room. Yet the miracle of these concentration camps was that the accumulation of disastrous elements was counterbalanced by other factors that allowed their inhabitants not merely to remain fully human but even to transcend their condition and become models of humanity. In these slums people actually put love and mutual support into practice. They knew how to be tolerant of all creeds and castes, how to give respect to a stranger, how to show charity toward beggars, cripples, lepers, and even the insane. Here the weak were helped, not trampled upon. Orphans were instantly adopted by their neighbors and old people were cared for and revered by their children.
These people lived in one of the world’s worst areas, and yet they managed to “overcome the world.”
We are inclined to blame circumstances for our internal state. I would be happy if only I had more money or a better house. But look at people who have what you long for, and ask them about the quality of their life. You will find that these things in themselves mean nothing for spiritual well-being.
At the world’s finest restaurants, you can find people muttering about imperfect food or poor service. People can make misery out of the most exquisite surroundings. On the other hand, you can find people of scant means who share a simple loaf of bread with delight, as if it were the most delicious meal ever offered.
You have probably had the experience of visiting someone in the hospital, anticipating their pain and thinking, “I don’t know how they can stand it”—and then you find that they cheer you up and that somehow they are faring well. They have overcome what seems unbearable to you, creating something that is beautiful and positive. They do not wait for the external world to change.
Overcoming the world means finding beauty even if the external situation is ugly. It means finding happiness whether you are wealthy or poor. It means experiencing that act of transformation in yourself—putting your will, effort, and attention into changing your experience of the world, rather than trying to change the world.
In every moment you can choose heaven or hell. You choose heaven by shifting your internal attitude, not by waiting for the external situation to change. If you wait for that, you will wait forever.
The world we need to overcome is the world in our own hearts. Any situation in your life can be transformed into a piece of heaven, depending on your own attitude and response.
And yet people are bound to make conditions: “Well, that’s true if you are reasonably healthy and have enough money and a nice house, but what about . . . ?”
And people make exceptions: “What about torture? Could you experience heaven while being physically tortured?” Now doesn’t that seem impossible? Who could experience heaven while locked up in jail and subjected to daily torment?
Yet we know there are people who have had exactly that experience and have come out transformed people. In some ways, they are almost thankful for what they went through because it challenged them to look to their internal life. Because the external situation was so horrible, they knew they were not going to find peace outside themselves, so they found it by going deeper within themselves.
Viktor Frankl, an Austrian neurologist and psychiatrist, was imprisoned in a Nazi concentration camp and lost most of his family; he transformed his experience and made of it a whole new approach to psychotherapy. Saint John of the Cross endured a long period in prison with frequent torture, yet it was there that he found his transformation; his tiny prison cell was where he found heaven.
Few of us go through such severe external pain, and yet we fuss about little things and believe they prevent our happiness. But the challenge is to overcome the world. You can choose not to let the external world dictate your internal attitude.
Trial is inevitable in our lives. The world is in a mess and we are bombarded with negative news. We need to remember that happiness does not depend on circumstances; we can choose how we let any circumstance affect our spiritual well-being. With help from our Higher Power, we can transform our inner state and overcome the world.
Tools for Task
- Notice your response when an event or person causes you upset.
What emotions come to the forefront when the world seems too much to bear? Try turning to your Higher Power when you feel overwhelmed. Consider the possibility that your Higher Power wants only the best for you and can help to lighten your burden.
- When you feel cut off from Heaven, look inside yourself.
Do you notice that you want to wallow in your negativity? Try to connect with those deeper feelings of peace and serenity that help you deal calmly with the events of daily living.
- Check to see if an event that is dragging you down can be transformed.
You have an ability to transform how you view and react to this event in your life. Your happiness is not dependent on external circumstances. You have the ability to summon help from your Higher Power. Ask your Higher Power to help you view positive outcomes and best scenarios.