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Good advice from Stephen Covey — and Jesus — for worrying less


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Tom Hoopes - published on 04/26/21

It's time to review our "Circle of Concern" and "Circle of Influence."

“When we are no longer able to change a situation,” said Victor Frankl, “we are challenged to change ourselves.”

He said that about the most difficult situation imaginable: A concentration camp where he was unable to control anything about his life except his interior reaction. And that was enough.

I have recently been teaching my students about the “Circle of Concern” and “Circle of Influence” that Stephen Covey wrote about in the 1990s bestseller 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. The concept is a great answer to the growing anxiety so many of us feel about the world right now.

Think of two concentric circles: The Circle of Concern is the tire; the Circle of Influence is the hubcap. 

Your Circle of Concern includes all the things you worry about — everything from an estranged family member and office drama to politics and the future of the Church.

Your Circle of Influence will be much smaller. These are the things you can actually change: Your own home, your own behavior at work, and your personal prayer life. 

What you will find is, the more time and energy you spend focused on things you can’t change in your Circle of Concern, the smaller your Circle of Influence gets. People start to see you as obsessed by politics or fixated by rage or hypocritical and they start to avoid you, or take everything you say with a grain of salt.

Conversely, if you focus on your Circle of Influence, it slowly grows, while your Circle of Concern shrinks. 

To be concrete: Posting your anger on social media makes your anger grow. Writing a letter to your representative and then moving on helps your anger subside. Rehearsing the hurts you have from difficult people in your life turns you ever more against them. If instead you do what you can to love them — even if it is only prayer and sacrifice — your stress level will drop.

This is nothing new, I realize. Jesus, the great spiritual teacher, gives great advice on this. 

There is Martha who was “distracted with much serving” and complained that her sister Martha wasn’t helping. He told her “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things; one thing is needful.” The one thing needful is love. The more your love, the less you feel helpless and the more change you bring about.

Jesus told us all Martha’s lesson when he said, “do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Let the day’s own trouble be sufficient for the day” —“don’t stress over what you can’t change; focus on what you can.”

This is especially true in our approach to each other, he said. Don’t spin your wheels trying to change your brother’s faults — change yours instead.

But Jesus was more than a teacher, and his life gives us an even greater example of this.

Jesus shows how following the Father’s will, one step at a time up Calvary, brings about victory. 

He didn’t stop on the Way of the Cross to decry the evil of the Romans who condemned him and tortured him. He didn’t denounce the Pharisees and Saducees who colluded in his death. He didn’t criticize the apostles who betrayed him, or the crowd that unfairly shouted for his crucifixion. 

He allowed them an opening to change, and then bowed to their freedom, using his own freedom to carry the cross for them.

He told us to do the same: Deny ourselves, take up our cross and follow him.

Saints have shown how taking up the daily cross of your Circle of Influence alleviates the worries in your Circle of Concern. 

Fulton Sheen said accepting your cross thwarts the one thing that makes you most unhappy: Your excessive self-love.

“You will never be happy if your happiness depends on getting solely what you want,” he said. “Change the focus, get a new center, will what God wills, and your joy no man shall take from you.”

What should that new center be? St. John Paul II tells us: “What really matters in life is that we are loved by Christ and that we love in return.”

St. Thérèse of Lisieux translates that into simple actions. “Miss no single opportunity of making some small sacrifice, here by a smiling look, there by a kindly word; always doing the smallest right and doing it all for love,” she wrote.

If enough of us do that, the troubles in the world that worry us will greatly decrease, and our own influence will grow, because Christ’s will.

Mental HealthSpiritual Life
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