Providence and Paranoia

Before I was ordained I started a business training/personal development company and used to do work in prisons and schools as well as in management training. We would often talk about belief systems and I would say that everyone believed in something. One prisoner said, “Not me. I don’t believe in anything.” My reply was, “You have just stated what you believe in.”

What I mean by belief system is that everyone operates with a certain set of assumptions which they rarely examine. On this foundation of assumptions they construct a framework of beliefs which give order and meaning to their life, even if (paradoxically) their “order and meaning” is nihilism and anarchy.) Some people (like Catholics) have a very intricate and interlocking framework of beliefs which helps them specify, clarify and classify life’s mystery. Indeed many Catholics of the more conservative bent go overboard and feel they must organize and control everything with a rule here, an item of canon law there, here a dogma, there a doctrine, here a regulation, there a rubric. But we’ll save that condition for another day…

Instead, I’m interested in the human need for an underlying system that gives their life meaning and purpose. Humankind cannot bear chaos and true nihilism. The human spirit fills the void somehow and searches for some deeper pattern and meaning to it all–even when it is not conscious that it is doing so. This hunger in the human heart is a hunger for God; a deep longing to know, and be unified with that loving intelligence that orders all things. It is a hunger for the certainty that behind and beneath and within the mysterious and sometimes seemingly absurd events of life God’s hand is at work guiding and directing all things to a good and just climax and fulfillment. Abandonment to that Divine Providence is the end point of the spiritual life: to become so full of trust and love for God that we commend our whole selves into his care moment by moment even when we don’t understand what is happening–especially when we don’t understand what is happening. At this point we begin to live within the power of God and begin to dwell at the heart of the love that ‘moves the sun and all the other stars.’

The alternative is what human beings drift into when they either ignore or reject Divine Providence–and that is some form of paranoia. All of us (whether we admit it or not) believe there really is some sort of larger plan and underlying pattern, and if we accept Divine Providence, then we accept that there is a great and good intelligence that guides all things according to a plan and pattern far greater than we can understand. However, if we reject that Divine Providence (and many ‘believers’ who intellectually believe in the Divine Providence still are unable or refuse to submit to it) we still have the fundamental conviction that there is some greater power ‘behind it all’ but instead of seeing that power as benign and benevolent ‘The Power’ is something to fear. This inner fear is then projected outward and becomes the motivating force for all sorts and forms of paranoia.

These forms of paranoia have been with humanity in every age. Every form of panic apocalypticism is individual and group paranoia. This panic apocalyptism may be ‘Christian’ with hysterical predictions of Christ’s return and the disintegration of the world system. It may be the paranoia of conspiracy theories of all sorts. “It’s the international banking families or the Jews or the homosexualists or the Freemasons or the Communists or the aliens or the US government or the CIA or the liberal mainstream media.” And lest the left wing feel innocent, they too have their paranoid belief systems. “It’s a ‘vast right wing conspiracy’, it’s global warming or nuclear disaster or overpopulation or world ecosystems collapsing and its global famine and the oil hungry cabal of American capitalists…” All these are forms of paranoia–fear of ‘The Power’ whatever it is–which is going to cause the end of the world and the collapse of all things. Of course this paranoia may be mild in form, but very often it takes the form of true paranoia–in which every news item, every fact of history, every event on the world stage is interpreted as part of the paranoic world view, and when the fact doesn’t fit the theory it is either rejected as a lie or it fits into the vast ‘cover up’ of the facts which goes along with all paranoia.

What interests me is that paranoia is the one form of mental illness that cannot really be treated. You can see why: the paranoid person suspects the doctor, won’t take his medicine and doesn’t believe he is insane. Tell the paranoid person that he’s lost his grip on reality and you become ‘one of the enemy.’

The only remedy is the opposite belief system: child like trust in the Divine Providence. If you are human you have to have some sort of belief system, so you might as well go with the one which not only offers peace of mind, joy and hope, but which also happens to be true.

It’s the way we’re made, and St Augustine’s words were never more deeply true that “O Lord, our hearts are restless until they find their rest in Thee.”

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  • Marilyn

    Great post, although I would respectfully disagree with you that if we don’t perceive certain powers as benign we might suffer from mental illness or paranoia. Perhaps I misinterpreted what you meant. But I certainly would agree that the thief comes in many forms and we should be forever watchful for our own spiritual health. The subject, however, reminded me of Dietrich Bonnhoeffer’s struggles with Nazism. Imprisoned after the unsuccessful assassination attempt on Hitler, Bonheoffer realized that God had overruled his earthly purpose to eliminate Hitler as the head of the philosophy of the German National Socialist Party, and he came to terms with the Cross with the understanding that in losing his life he would gain it. His greatness came directly out of his earthly state – his smallness, for when we are weak, He is strong.

  • Fr Longenecker

    Of course there are real enemies and Satan is at work in the world. Discerning where this is true and where we are paranoid is what makes the whole subject intriguing.

  • Just another mad Catholic

    Question Father How am supposed to have "child like trust in the Divine Providence" when God abandoned me to bad parents, a father who walked out on us when I was 12 (10 years ago) and who cursed me with Autism when each week at Mass I see good Catholic couples who brought their children up properly, pray the family Rosary each night and whose children are free from defects that impair a vocation ?I was washed out of a Monastary's vocational programme before I even started on Monday because the Vocations director is concerned about having someone who is mildly autistic around – he also said that I shouldn't bother applying anywhere else. and finding a spouse is hard enough with autism, finding a good Catholic Spouse is even harder.Why did those children get good parents? what did I do to deserve the parents I got?

  • Fr Longenecker

    JAMC – These are tough questions that are simply too complex and personal to discuss in such a forum as this. If you want to drop me an email I may be able to help a little.

  • Paul Stilwell

    Good post. I agree Father. But another post written as an addendum to this one could easily be titled: Providence and Presumption.About the other extreme.

  • JG

    Excellent post, FatherJohn

  • kentuckyliz

    I have a powerful personal testimony of Divine Providence–and I also live under the grey cloud of the minor paranoia of a survivor of three primary cancers, "waiting for the other shoe to drop." Literally, nowadays–waiting for results to see if I have a recurrence.It's weird, but you can have both childlike trust in Divine Providence, and joy and peace in your spirit, while the flesh still holds its fear and dread.I gave up on a false Santa God a long time ago. God is good no matter what the results are, no matter what happens to me. I will praise his holy name even whilst bald and burned.Jesus told us to pick up our crosses and follow him, but our flesh desires a cross made of styrofoam, with wheels and a plush shoulder pad.Heaven, and even Purgatory, are great places, right? So why aren't we more eager to get there ASAP? Why should I have vast numbers of people praying for my healing? Something about this flesh clings to this life.Jesus, I trust in you.I'd really rather not have cancer again, but Thy will not mine be done.

  • Carolyn

    A terrific, terrific post! Life's disappointments can be transformed into other opportunities when we know we are worth more than the sun and the stars to a deliberate Creator. I was asked to do very hard things and like Joseph in the Bible, all seemed unjust and unfair. But when I said "yes" fully to my hard road and trusted with my sheep-like head bent low and looking only to the Shepherd, He walked me not only safely through a deathly wasteland but into victory. My family is not only preserved, but powerfully restored, strong and loving. My ability to serve and love is met with fruitfulness and joy, and every day is an opportunity to share His love with effectiveness and immense eternal satisfaction.