To paraphrase Charles Dickens, “We live in the best of times and the worst of times.” Despite enjoying the greatest standard of living in world history, with conveniences and comforts that our ancestors couldn’t even contemplate, we are plagued with ever-increasing levels of distress and the gnawing sense that our lives are empty, devoid of purpose, meaning, and significance. In short, we are hurting, trapped in an unending cycle of despair and “dis-ease.”
Just look at the facts. Nearly 25% of U.S. adults suffer from a diagnosable psychological or mental disorder in any given year. Among the most common of these are depressive disorders (deep sadness), bipolar disorder (extreme mood swings), and anxiety disorders (nervousness), as well as so-called major mental illnesses such as schizophrenia. Of course, this does not include the less severe so-called “problems in living” such as episodes when we feel jittery or sad. These emotional states are much more common and debilitating than we would like to believe.
No doubt we all know someone who always seems to be sad or stressed out and who never seems to “snap out of it.” Perhaps you are such a person, someone who always seems to battle with themselves to get up in the morning and face the growing sense that something is not right: “I shouldn’t be feeling this way. My life shouldn’t be this difficult and unrewarding.” Believe me, you’re not alone.
In response to the increasing distress that’s part of all our lives these days we try to relieve ourselves by seeking counseling or psychotherapy or, more commonly, by trying to ease our frayed nerves with prescription mood-altering medications. It is estimated that the number of physician visits during which a medication for an emotional or psychiatric condition were prescribed increased from about 11 million in 1988 to 20 million in 1994.1 Most of the medications prescribed were to treat depression and anxiety disorders, and in any given year about 10% of all medications prescribed are for psychological problems. These estimates do not even account for medications such as Valium, Prozac, and Xanax that can now be obtained with the click of the mouse from the Internet. It also doesn’t take into account the thousands of people who smoke, drink alcohol, or take illegal drugs as a way to cope with the distress and difficulties in their lives. Thus, the number of persons using prescription medications or other substances to help manage the stresses and chaos of life is much higher than the statistics say.
Despite all of these treatments, some better, some worse, we are still carrying our fears, our insecurities, our guilt, our sadness, our loneliness, our knotted stomachs, and our constant sense that something is terribly wrong, that we are not living the kind of life that we intuitively know we should.
If things weren’t bad enough, the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 brought with them a new level of fear and uncertainty. In the aftermath of the attacks, thousands of hurting desperate people sought the services of psychologists, counselors, priests, social workers, psychiatrists, and yes, drinks, pills and powders to find a way to overcome the pervasive sense that life no longer made sense.
Immediately after the attacks on the Trade Center and Pentagon, as people scrambled to come to terms with our new and more dangerous world, the anthrax-laced letters that killed five people prompted a new wave of panic that had thousands of desperate people begging their doctor for a prescription for Ciprofloxacin (the antibiotic to treat exposure to anthrax). Many people even went as far as to buy gasmasks to protect themselves from the chemical or biological attack that might come at the hands of terrorists.
Studies show that the immediate reaction after the terrorist and anthrax attacks was one of shock prompting anxiety, sleep disturbance, panic attacks, and, to a lesser degree, depression, and social withdrawal.2 However, after this shock response it has been found that many people reported increased spirituality, gratitude, hope, kindness, love, and teamwork. In other words, the vicious attacks on our security and way of life produced changes in character, a movement toward being more positive and altruistic. Although it has been shown that these positive traits tend to disappear over time, they point to our resiliency in the face of tragedy, our capacity to transform and adapt in a positive way, our innate sense that living a life marked by a positive outlook and generosity is a way to overcome the traumas and tragedies that are part and parcel of living in our uncertain times.
Surely, we were not meant to life in fear,
dreading what may be just around the corner.
We would all agree that our lives on earth are too precious and too short to be caught up in the throes of distress and feelings of insignificance. Unfortunately, although we have made great strides in the treatment of emotional and psychological disorders, too many of us still suffer terribly and this indicates that we must find another, more effective way to manage the distress and purposelessness that marks most of our lives.
No human in history has lived under more pressure than Jesus of Nazareth. As the Son of God, He was born in human form with the task of saving humanity from itself, from its sin-drenched nature, from its obsession with self-gratification. Granted, as God’s only true son, He had certain advantages over us mere mortals (being able to walk on water, for one); nonetheless, I believe that we can learn a lot from the life and conduct of Jesus.
For instance, how did Jesus manage to cope with literally having the weight of the world and the future of humanity on his shoulders? How did Jesus stay focused on His divine purpose when, at every turn, people were trying to undermine His efforts? How did Jesus keep such a positive outlook when all around Him were suffering and injustice? How did Jesus resist becoming depressed when He saw that despite His best effort, most people were unmoved by His love and compassion and refused to change their hearts and minds? How did Jesus keep His anger and need for vengeance at bay in the face of the abuse and mocking He experienced at the hands of His contemporaries?
In the pages that follow, I will attempt to answer questions such as these by describing the four keys that Jesus taught us. It is important to keep in mind, however, that Jesus does not give us a recipe or formula on how to live a full and satisfying life; He gives Himself, the model or template of ideal human living. The culmination of what it means to be a human in God’s image is in the way Jesus lives: His goodness, His compassion, His sincerity. I have attempted to distill the essence of Jesus’ human character into four interlocking keys. My hope is that we can all benefit from learning about the four keys and from the example that Jesus set for us; an example that, if followed, can move us away from lives characterized by heaviness, tension, and spiritual distress toward one where we are realizing our full potential as loving, integrated, and spiritually mature human beings. My prayer is that this little book helps you toward realizing your God-given birthright to live a life of integrity, significance, and peace.