Ann was one of three children, and perhaps more than any of them, she always felt a special attachment to her mother.
As time went on, Ann’s brother and sister moved away, and Ann became the go-to person for her parents. Ann and her family always were there with her parents during the holidays. If her brother or sister had a question about their parents, Ann was the one they called to voice their concerns.
Eventually, Ann’s father died from a heart attack. Then Ann’s mother started having health problems. Ann tried to get her mom to move in with her, but she was adamant about staying in her own home. The result was that Ann’s workload nearly doubled. Besides looking after her mom’s shopping, cleaning, taking care of her medications, getting her to doctor visits, and visiting her every day, Ann’s health and family needs were becoming more pressing. She felt overwhelmed. If you were Ann’s physician, what advice would you give her?
Dozens of Do’s and Not Enough Don’ts
Ann’s story brings up several issues, but right now let’s only focus on one: What do you do when the demands of your responsibilities for your time, energy, and personal resources exceed your capacity to meet all of them?
What sort of responsibilities are we talking about?
For starters, we have our job. Our job provides us the income we need to support ourselves and our families. Our work is a way we can express our gifts, purpose, and service to God.
We have our relationship with our spouse. Marriage is a partnership between a man and a woman for the whole of life. It is a relationship of committed love oriented toward furthering God’s creation.
Parents provide care for their children. We work to raise our children to be successful, healthy, and independent adults. We have a unique and loving relationship with each child, and for grandparents, with each grandchild, as well.
As in Ann’s story, we have our relatives— our parents, brothers, sisters, and our extended family.
There is the Church. We are part of the Body of Christ, with each person representing a unique and valuable role. We participate in the mission of the Church to share the Gospel and further the kingdom of God.
We have the broader community in which we live. We participate as citizens. We have neighbors and form associations with others to promote a cause. We look out for those who are poor and in need. We also have dozens of casual encounters with people every day.
We have our personal needs. We should care for our mind and body. We need to sleep, eat, exercise, enjoy relationships with friends, and take time for leisure and recreation.
Finally, we have a relationship with God, who is the center of our life and existence.
Managing Life’s Demands: Two Approaches
How do we reconcile the demands we face from all these? We could ignore some of them. But if we are to love others, then people matter, and each one of these areas matters, too. Some people have adopted a systematic way to set priorities and manage their time. Here are two methods I’ve seen used.
Option #1: The Priority System
This approach assigns different priority levels to each category of responsibilities. We are told to place God first, our spouse second, and our children third. Next is the Church, followed by our work or job, and then finally our personal needs.
There are several problems with the priority system. First, how do we implement it? Does it direct how much time we spend in each area? If that were so, we’re already in trouble because we spend the majority of our time on ourselves (sleeping, eating, self-care) and our jobs. Or, when it comes to making decisions, do we work our way down the list, giving preferential treatment based on the priority level? If that were the case, we would often never do any of the lower level items.
Option #2: The Balanced System
The balanced system assigns equal priority to each of the areas of demand while placing God at the center of our lives. There is no hierarchy of priorities. Instead, one tries to balance the time and effort spent in each area, ensuring that the areas we tend to ignore still receive attention.
While this approach might at first seem healthier, it doesn’t reflect reality. There are real differences in the time we must devote to each responsibility. Also, how does one resolve the call to love others with a system that artificially tries to balance everything out?
Do we have any other options?
Responding to Life’s Demands God’s Way
We do, and to explore them, we need to begin with the Two Great Commandments:
You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and first commandment. The second is like it. You shall love your neighbor as yourself. (Matthew 22:37 NABRE)
God IS at the center of our life. Everything we do is an expression of our love and service. But this is not incompatible with all the other areas of life. Instead, everything we do should in some way express our love for God. We don’t compartmentalize God and look to Him only in religious settings.
Here are some guiding principles we can follow:
Follow God’s commands.1
God’s commands are meant for our good, not to control us. We follow His commands not only out of obligation but out of love. God’s commands direct us to the healthiest way to live and following them becomes the foundation for everything else.
Live out your vocation.2
A vocation is a work and destiny we receive from God. There are three kinds of vocations.
The first is our vocation to holiness. We are to work toward perfection in charity and to conform to the image of Christ.
Second, we have a vocation to our state in life, whether it be to the lay state, religious life, or to the ministerial priesthood. Lay people engage in the ordinary affairs of life and try to reorder them according to God’s will. We take the initiative in applying the demands of the Christian faith to daily living. We are to proclaim the Good News of Jesus Christ to the world. Men and women join together specially through marriage. They raise their children to live a fully human life and prepare them to follow Christ as His disciples.
We also can receive a personal vocation— a unique and particular work through which we serve God. A personal vocation is not the same thing as our job. It’s not meant only for personal fulfillment. Discerning one’s vocation takes prayer and the guidance of the Spirit.
Use your gifts and charisms to further the kingdom of God.3
God gives each of us gifts, but they are not meant only for us; they are for the good of others. Disciples should discover their gifts and use them. Knowing your charisms helps you make decisions about where you use and don’t apply your efforts.
Live by charity.4
We are to love God, others, and ourselves. This is not an “either-or” or prioritizing kind of thing where we love one person more than another. We attend to people and relationships. We love ourselves, not selfishly, but as God’s beloved. Living by charity helps us to resolve many of the apparent conflicts between life’s demands.
Pray for guidance.
There will always be situations and responsibilities that seem in conflict. Choosing between two good things can be tough. We ask the Holy Spirit to guide us. If we receive an inspiration from the Spirit, we should follow it.
Use your intellect.
Sometimes the choices before us seem to fall in line with all of the above principles and we don’t have an inspiration of the Spirit to help us choose. What should we do then? If we can delay the decision, then perhaps we can wait. But sometimes circumstances are such that we waiting is not an option. We can be so overloaded with responsibilities that it’s hurting our relationships and vocation. When faced with difficult choices, we should seek counsel. In the end, we apply our God-given intellect to make the best decision. Sometimes we’ll make mistakes. But God is big enough to see us through our missteps and direct our paths, as long as we remain open to Him.
Ann’s Story: Revisited
In the opening story, Ann was trapped by her sense of obligation and inappropriate feelings of guilt. Her response caused problems for both her family (vocation) and her mental and physical health (love of self). She allowed her mother and siblings to avoid responsibilities by taking them on herself. Applying the above principles would have allowed her to set appropriate boundaries and bring about a healthier resolution to her dilemma.
1 John 14:21; I John 1:3-6.
2 CCC 1533; LG 39, 40; Matt. 5:48; Rom. 8:29.
3 CCC 791, 951; Rom. 12:3-8; I Cor. 12.
4 Matt. 22:37; I Cor. 13.
Managing Life’s Demands is part of a series on practices to promote psychological and spiritual health.