That advice, which I'm trying to live by, comes from St. Josemaría Escrivá, "the saint of ordinary life." He meant it as encouragement to avoid pessimism and discouragement about what's wrong with the world, or how revolting other people's sins are. Instead, you try to do all the good that's in your hands to do You avoid defeatism and passivity in one fell swoop.
But it has another application. Never mind what's wrong with the world: let's talk about what's wrong with me. What about when I want to overcome some vice, break free from some bad habit, but it's just too unpleasant to keep saying no to myself? Here's an everyday example from my own very everyday life.
After years of an all-devouring Facebook addiction, I've decided to try to limit myself to half an hour or so a day. It's an idea that has occurred to me before--with shocking regularity, actually--but I never tried it because I didn't think I could do it, and furthermore, I really, really, really didn't want to. So there.
Eventually, though, it became clear that the addiction had to go. I was lavishing more attention on people I'd never met than on those I'd sworn fidelity to, or given birth to. I'd sit hunched over my phone, oblivious to my kids' childhoods speeding past, trying to set straight some virtual friend of a virtual friend who believed something that didn't sit right with me.
Just then, I got some good advice. Someone helped me to see that while I had no desire to white-knuckle it through the day saying no to social media every ten minutes, I did want to reclaim all those hours by saying yes to other things.
Obvious enough, but still just theoretical. So I made a list of things to do instead--from reading War and Peace to myself and The Hobbit to the kids, to setting up a home office, to writing a book, to getting out my oil pastels, to planting blackberries, to baseball in the park, to painting a family tree on the garage wall.
These particular things may or may not spark excitement in other people's hearts. But they're good, positive things.
And I took some common-sense measures to help myself. I deleted my Facebook app, and I got some podcasts ready to help me not feel too deprived as I went about my business.
It's been weeks now, and It hasn't been a white-knuckle experience at all.
And when it comes to more obviously spiritual things than pursuing your hobbies and catching up on your housework, here's something from Pope St. John Paul II that's helped me. I'm pretty sure it's in Veritatis splendor. Here it is in layman's language:
The Thou Shalt Not's give us a lower limit--they tell us: You don't want to go below this line--trust me, you'll end up unhappy.But there is no upper limit. This means:
You can't steal, but there's no limit to how generous you can be.
You can't commit adultery, but there's no limit to how good you can be to your husband or wife.
You can't covet, but there's no limit to how grateful you can be for what you do have.
You can't take the name of the Lord in vain, but you can praise Him all you like, with all the prayers and poetry and songs and artwork you can dream up.
The Thou Shalt Not's are real. They're there for a reason. it won't go well with you if you ignore them on the plea that they're too negative or judgmental.
But we go wrong when we imagine that the whole point is to excise sins and vices (and even innocuous time-wasters) without putting anything in their place, as if the only choice were between indulging in evil and remaining passive.