People of faith possess the antidote to fear

November 25, 2001|By Joseph R. Novello

WASHINGTON - My patient, a 45-year old Washington attorney, was shaken and riddled with uncertainty. "It's the end of life as we knew it," he intoned solemnly. He was interpreting some remarks of Vice President Dick Cheney.

Mr. Cheney, in a recent interview, was attempting to reassure Americans that although the war on terrorism may not be won in our lifetimes, we would prevail by adopting new military and homeland security measures and accommodating to a "new normality" in our daily lives. My patient was not reassured. He wanted a prescription for Valium - and Cipro.

As a psychiatrist, I am prepared to assist my patients with tranquilizers and talk therapy, but I am concerned that these are half measures and short-term solutions to the long-term problem of terrorism. Our national angst requires a cure that mere psychiatry cannot offer.

If, as my worried patient, you subscribe to the prevailing secular wisdom that "everything has changed" since Sept. 11, I am afraid you are dooming yourself to a new age of anxiety.

Everything has changed?

If you really believe this talk-show trivia, it may not be your neurotransmitters that need tweaking, but your value system. If your happiness and security are based upon the "things" around you, then, indeed, your world has been turned upside-down. No wonder you are fearful. If material things and secular values are at the center of your life, that center has been cratered. No wonder you are anxious.

Another way to view our plight is through faith, not necessarily religious.

Earlier this year, I conducted a research project into the subject of happiness. Along with a colleague, I surveyed 400 Americans, ages 18 to 90, and asked whether they considered themselves to be happy.

Ten percent said "no," 60 percent said they were "basically content but not really happy" and 30 percent responded that they were, in fact, happy people. It is that 30 percent who have something to teach us now in our national tragedy, because I am sure that if they were happy in the spring of 2001, they are still happy today. Why? Because what makes them happy cannot be stolen from them by the barbarians at our gates.

The people we identified as truly happy were individuals who put their faith not in "things" but in nonmaterial, eternal values. While they may "want" many of the same things as most others, they are content to accept what they have when they cannot have what they want. They have learned the difference between pleasure and success on the one hand and true happiness on the other. Success is getting what we want. Happiness is wanting what we have.

So, in a day when we may have to adjust our daily expectations about such things as stock portfolios, travel arrangements, mail delivery and, yes, even our personal safety, we have something to learn from those whose inner peace is beyond the reach of fear.

Our research found that the happy people in the survey were distinguished from the unhappy and the contented by three crucial factors: They strive to live a virtuous life in service to others, they identify themselves as "spiritual" and they practice a religion regularly. They are, in a word, people of faith.

Looking for an antidote to fear? The answer is faith: faith in God, faith in the essential good of our nation, faith in our neighbors, faith in ourselves. For people of faith, everything has changed - and nothing has changed. At the end of the day, we will be judged not by how many "things" we've accumulated but by how we have lived our lives. So, as I counsel my patients: Take reasonable precautions (including a stash of Cipro, if you must), but then live.

Remember: Life is 10 percent what happens to you and 90 percent what you do about it. Like the happy people in my survey, if you focus on your abundance rather than your deficits, if you live a virtuous life rooted in faith, you won't have to seek happiness, even in these trying times. Happiness will find you.

Joseph R. Novello is a Washington psychiatrist and author of The Myth of More (Paulist Press, 2001).

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