Throughout my life, I’ve always struggled with anxiety, a problem which has sometimes found expression in various kinds of obsessive-compulsive behavior. Usually, this has taken the form of annoying but ultimately harmless kinds of “double-checking”: making sure the oven is turned off, or the front door is locked, or my hands are thoroughly washed. In some instances, however, it’s been more serious: when I was in high school, for example, and it would routinely take me over thirty minutes to set my alarm clock, checking and rechecking it again and again, for fear I wouldn’t wake up on time the next morning.
Over the years, I’ve employed different strategies to keep this behavior under control. Confiding in family and friends has helped. There were also periods when I met with mental health professionals. Most of the time, however, I just kept my compulsive tendencies to myself and sought to manage them on my own.
Yet of all the coping methods I’ve tried, perhaps the most successful comes from a surprising source: the writings of the thirteenth-century theologian St. Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274), which I discovered when I was in graduate school. Thomas’s name is typically associated with grand rational systems and ethereal philosophical speculation, but in his work I found a way of thinking about God, the world, and even myself that has proven effective whenever my obsessive-compulsiveness has threatened to get the better of me.
One of the things Thomas teaches is that in addition to being the source of all goodness and the author of our salvation, God is the necessary explanation for the world and everything that happens in it. As Thomas puts it, borrowing a traditional Christian formula, God creates the world “out of nothing” (creatio ex nihilo). He means not only that God makes the world, in the sense of bringing reality into existence in the first place, but also, and just as importantly, that God sustains the world, that without continuous and loving divine action, the entire cosmos would simply wink out of existence, the way a room will go dark when the lights are turned off. According to Thomas, if not for God’s constant creative activity, the universe would immediately dissolve back into the nothingness from which it came. (Thomas bases this doctrine in part on the opening verses of Genesis: “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep…” [NRSV])
Although Thomas’s teachings on creation can admittedly be abstract, what they helped me realize was this: whenever I find myself double-checking doors or over-scrubbing my hands or indulging in any other kind of obsessive-compulsive behavior, what I’m really doing is trying to hold my world together, to prevent my personal universe from collapsing into nothingness. In other words, obsessive-compulsiveness is my way of trying to be God. And this is an endeavor quite obviously bound to fail.
Let me explain what I mean by returning to the example I mentioned at the outset: the compulsive checking of my alarm clock when I was in high school. Back then, like many with obsessive-compulsive tendencies, I consistently fell victim to a warped but seductive form of reasoning that calculated disaster along an elaborate, cause-and-effect chain of events. Although not always clearly formulated, my thinking would inevitably go something like this: I need to be absolutely sure my alarm clock is set tonight, because if I don’t get up on time tomorrow morning, then I’ll miss the bus; if I miss the bus, then I’ll be late for school; if I’m late for school, then my grades will suffer; if my grades suffer, then I won’t graduate; if I don’t graduate, then I won’t go to college; if I don’t go to college, then I won’t get a job; if I don’t get a job, then I won’t have any money; if I don’t have any money, then I won’t be able to buy food…and so on and so on, until I finally concluded that if my alarm clock did not go off on time in the morning, then I would eventually wind up dead! It was no wonder, then, that I would dedicate so much energy making sure the alarm clock’s cord was securely plugged into the wall and the volume was set at the proper level. As far as I was concerned, my very life depended on waking up at the right hour!
I knew full well, of course, that such thinking was ridiculous. The problem, however, was that I had no conceptual resources to combat it. No matter how much I told myself that it was nonsense to believe that my alarm clock was the only thing standing between me and certain doom, part of me remained stubbornly unconvinced. I would wonder to myself: How do I know— truly know—that waking up late won’t eventuate in my gruesome demise? There seemed to be no reasonable assurance that such an outcome would not, in fact, ultimately occur. It was the same dilemma I had when well-meaning people told me: “Don’t worry so much!” I would think: But why shouldn’t I worry? How can I be certain that everything is really going to be okay?
These kinds of fears and questions, I believe, are at the heart of obsessive-compulsive behavior. For those of us plagued by such tendencies, the central worry is that there are no guarantees that catastrophe and devastation are not looming around the corner the moment we relax our vigilance. Thus, we refuse to take any chances, not with alarm clocks, or locked doors, or clean hands, or anything.
It was Thomas who finally helped me get past this anxiety-ridden view of the world. He made me realize the difference between a bad or even terrible event happening to me, on the one hand, and the complete collapse of my universe, on the other. It will always be the case that I might suffer something unfortunate—I might get robbed, for instance, if I leave my front door unlocked—but it is quite another to imagine that what necessarily follows is the utter destruction of my universe (getting robbed doesn’t mean my whole world will blow up). In my life, I have some degree of control over the bad things that might occur—I can make sure I lock my door before I leave my apartment, for example. But no matter how careful I am about keeping my world safe and secure, I can never prevent it from falling into non-existence and nothingness. As Thomas allowed me to see, only God can do that. Trying to live otherwise is not only foolhardy, it’s also exhausting.
I will not pretend that after reading Thomas Aquinas, suddenly my obsessive-compulsiveness just stopped. Overcoming such tendencies takes more than a change in outlook; it involves training and practice in new behavior. But Thomas did provide me a healthier way of looking at my world. Now, whenever I feel overwhelmed by anxiety, I try to remind myself to leave God’s work to God so that I can get on with the business of doing my own.
Robert St. Hilaire is an assistant professor of religious studies at Niagara University, a Catholic university in the Vincentian tradition located just a few miles from Niagara Falls.