Maintaining Mental and Emotional Peace in a Foggy World

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“It was once commonly known that the enjoyment of interior peace was the reward of virtuous living, a healthy and appropriately restrained sensory life, a clear mind able steadily to consider the causes of things in our changing world, and a heart often lifted to God,” Christopher O. Blum and Joshua P. Hochschild write in their book A Mind at Peace: Reclaiming an Ordered Soul in the Age of Distraction. Who hasn’t felt tied to their phones or social media recently? Who feels like they must use social media to keep up with friends, family, news, ideas, and even strangers? Who hasn’t become bored and started scrolling through the Internet aimlessly? It’s quite likely you’re reading this on your laptop or on your phone through an blog feed app right now!

And this isn’t bad. In fact, this technology can be quite good and can help us lead good, virtuous lives. However, all things in moderation.

What Blum and Hochschild purport in their book is not an absence or retreat from technology and social media, but a proper integration of it into our lives and the cultivation of discipline in the life to use it properly and regain peace in our minds. As May is Mental Health Awareness month, it’s important to learn how we can use technology to keep our peace and not let it control our lives and hearts.

Here are some important takeaways from the book:

Be self-aware

Being aware of who and what we are and what emotions we experience is a large part of being able to find peace in our lives. Peace is the proper use of discipline, coordination, and order to rightly order our lives. Blum and Hochschilds write, “Unlike machines or other animals, then, we human creatures can speak of self-mastery or self-control. We make choices, we govern our activity, and we sense–– even we are also sometimes tempted to ignore it–– a responsibility to do these things well. This power, the power to choose and to act, is the key to achieving peace.”

Peace is about using our human agency to choose and act well. It’s not enough to have good intentions, though that is a great first step, but we must also learn to choose well and then to act well. “Sophisticated technology also has a way of obscuring our awareness of agency. Some technology truly empowers us by focusing or extending the range of our action…A tool is something that requires skill and virtue to use well. Often, however, our technologies are not merely tools that strengthen our agency in this way, but are devices that substitute for skill and virtue by allowing us to achieve goals without effort and without a sense of responsibility,” write Blum and Hochschild.

Be a true friend

“In Dante’s view, what most damages the social order is the lack of integrity; it is falseness, deception, betrayal that makes great sinners fit to be devoured by the Father of Lies in a perverse communion of destruction. By contrast, as we know, there is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for another (John 15:13), to be counted on even unto death. . . . Hence, the trait of true friendliness or sociability we focus on here is reliability.”

Friendship brings true conversation which then builds friendship and community. Conversation, both speaking and listening, then, is the essential act of friendship—an essential requirement of friendship is then standing by our words. This is what it means to be reliable.

Conversation should deepen a relationship, not merely transmit data, although transmitting data can be an important factor in that. “Digital devices can tempt us to think that the purpose of communication is merely to transmit information rather than to deepen a relationship. . . . Consider how much investment it takes to make a simple phone call, by comparison with a text…Such work, such concentration of attention and emotional investment, we can avoid by sending a text or an email.” This is what it means to be a true friend, to invest ourselves in each other and to be genuinely available, and to trust others.

Power of perception

Perception is sometimes talked about as a “sixth sense,” an ability to see beyond what is available to us through our sense. More properly, that is intuition, whereas perception lies in knowledge and judgment and sensory information. “The interpretation of our sensory and intellectual lives means that we are a good deal more complex than the angles, who know without the need to learn through the sense, and it also means that we are more complicated than the beasts, which sense, learn, remember, and act by instinct, but do not know.”

Vice, such as intemperance, can cloud perception. So can looking at man-made imagery too often, losing the ability to tell what is real and what isn’t. “Today, we may find it say to tell the difference between, say, a Jeep and a Prius, and so tell ourselves that we remain perceptive. Yet the differences in man-made artifacts are significantly easier to appreciate than the differences between natural things.” It is very important to not over-stimulate our imaginations, which leads to them being easy to manipulate. Being able to appreciate the differences in natural, non-man-made, life is so incredibly valuable in this day and age.

Be purposeful in thought and action

This might seem very self-explanatory or imminently evident to some, but being intentional in what we do and how we use our time is a huge piece of gaining peace in our lives. Blum and Hochschild write: “We take attention so much for granted that very little is said or thought about it. We use our attention all the time, attending to many things, but rarely do we stop to think about the power of attention itself. Once we take notice of it, however, we can see how crucial it is to a healthy interior life, and how dangerous it is for us to allow our habits of attention to become misdirected.”

Attention takes our time, our energy, our thoughts, our emotions, and our will. It is very important to choose what we give our attention to wisely! Practically, our attention is our identity. Dominican theologian Servais Pinckaers said, “Tell me what you admire and I will tell who you are.” “Whereas a properly intellectual virtue, such as prudence, is a matter of right estimation and sound deliberation,” Blum and Hochschild write, “studiousness, or the virtue of attention, is a habit of inclining our awareness in the right way and to the right things. To hav this virtue means that our interest in things, our desire for knowledge, is rightly ordered and deployed. . . . The virtue of studiousness is temperance extended to cognitive desire.”

Be choosy in a choice-based world

Making decisions can be hard. We’re constantly bombarded with decisions to make and options to choose from. How to pick? It’s not quite as simple as understanding a problem and then evaluating its possible solutions. Our sensory and intellectual faculties play a huge part in how we formulate and evaluate problems and then in how we choose; it draws on so many levels of human awareness. “Decisiveness gets at what, in the classical tradition, was addressed under the auspices of prudence, or practical wisdom. This is the fundamental and overarching virtue of good judgment. Its effect is the decision itself, but as we have seen, if the decision is to be the right one, it must be preceded by a complex capacity for thought integrated with a disciplined and developed heart.”

Following the intellectual traditions of Aristotle and Aquinas, we can identify four elements of prudence: general knowledge of relevant principles of action, ability to apply that general knowledge to particular circumstances, cultivated virtue, and deliberation. These elements work together in us to help us make right choices. “If our hearts are well tune and our minds are clear about our true good, our actions will be nearly seamless, and the reasoning that is implicit behind our choices will often recede from conscious view…What the world sees is not the cogs and wheels of thoughts churning, but gracious, good, and decisive action.”

“Peace I leave with out; my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give it to you. Do not let your hearts be troubled or afraid” (John 14:27). We can actively reclaim peace in our lives in this age of distraction, but it takes grace and virtue. Peace, goodness, God is worth it. Pick up a copy of Christopher O. Blum and Joshua P. Hochschild’s book A Mind at Peace: Reclaiming an Ordered Soul in the Age of Distraction to learn how to retrain your heart and mind to be at peace. A great addition in this book is that every chapter ends with Scripture or words from a saint on the topic and then reflection questions, helping us to integrate these principles into our lives. Peace be with you!

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