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Father Michael Schmitz: How do we live well in a world of constant change?

I have a somewhat strange question for you. I’m someone who has a very hard time dealing with change. I like to make sure that the things I have and the relationships I’m in with friends and family are long-lasting, even permanent. It saddens me greatly to think that one day I might not have these relationships.

Thank you for writing and for your question. I do not want to be too abrupt in my response, but I have to warn you, the upshot of all that I’m going to say is going to be, “Deal with it”. (How’s that for a kind and gentle answer? What a grump!)

Father Mike Schmitz
Father Michael Schmitz
Ask Father Mike

But what I mean is that you are going to have to truly “deal” with the reality of loss. I mean: engage with it. Reflect on it. Ponder what it means to live in this world that is so filled with meaning and with meaningful relationships, and how all of those will come to an end (at least in this life). Too often, we don’t engage with the certainty of loss until it strikes us in the face and pierces our hearts. At least you are asking about this ahead of time. And yet, to have anxiety over a loss that one will have in the future is not going to be helpful. Therefore, knowing that, in the end, everyone you and I know and love will die, how do we live well now?

Also, in your defense, your desire to hold on to the most important people in your life is a sign that we are made to seek healthy stability and long-lasting relationships.

It is worth noting something about our culture that can be seen in what you are going through. We live in a culture that is hyper-mobile and hyper-disposable. I don’t know of any other time in human history when leaving one’s family and closest relationships when one “grows up” was the norm. Of course, almost all people in the United States are here because our ancestors left home and came to the New World, but they often traveled with their family or made plans to rejoin their family of origin at a later date. In our current situation, it is expected that people will leave their hometown and family and all of their friends in order to “start a new life.” This is so strange. It is so incredibly foreign to much of the human experience.

We long for stability. We long for permanence. This hyper-mobility doesn’t do us much good. It leaves us without roots and isolated. Of course, there are exceptions, but an outgrowth of such instability is that we have become more and more prone to disposable relationships. Since we are constantly leaving the relationships that are the most important to us and (hopefully, if we are lucky) forming new meaningful relationships, friends (and even family, it seems) have become more and more expendable. You seem to be indicating that this instability and expendability has affected you.

What can you do with it? The answer will not be to feed the anxiety, but to turn your anxiety into action — to transform your worry into wisdom. Often, anxiety is the result of feeling powerless in the face of some future catastrophe.

But you are not powerless. You can act. You can choose. You can learn. Yes, change and loss are inevitable. Part of maturing is reconciling with the reality of that uncertainty and change. What can they teach you now?

I submit that there are two ways you can act in the fact of the certainty of an uncertain future: live with gratitude and grow in wisdom.

The fact that all of our relationships will come to an end could hopefully help you to appreciate their incredible value. How often do we take other people for granted? If we have people who are close to us, so many of us can assume that that will always be the case. We can see this with many people and their parents. Simply because their parents may have “always been around,” folks can get it into their heads that their parents will always be around. But when you know that your time with them is limited, it can elicit a massive amount of gratitude and hopefully encourage you to live more wisely.

The temporary nature of this world and the relationships in it will hopefully make you wise as well. As noted, this knowledge will hopefully inspire you to spend more time with the people who matter the most to you. In addition, the fact that they will pass away will hopefully also encourage you to not place all of your hope or promise of happiness in another person (or group of persons). Rather, you can place your hope on God who desires a relationship with you. One of the prayers from the Mass asks that we may “deal with the things of this passing world as to hold rather to the things that eternally endure.”

It seems that by “dealing with loss” in a way that grows gratitude and fosters wisdom, one would become more and more engaged with the gifts of this life while always having an eye on the next life.

Father Michael Schmitz is director of youth and young adult ministry for the Diocese of Duluth and chaplain of the Newman Center at the University of Minnesota Duluth.