That Anger and Frustration You’re Feeling About the World is Actually Your Wake-Up Call, Says Rev. James Martin, S.J. Here are His Spiritual Tips for All of Us—No Matter Our Religion


Father James Martin, S.J., does the kind of work that could make it tempting to despair.

He’s worked in hospitals for the seriously ill and at homeless shelters around the world. He’s worked with street-gang members in Chicago and in a prison in Boston. He’s helped East African refugees in overcrowded slums in Nairobi, Kenya.

Given the hardships he’s witnessed, you’d imagine Father Martin has felt hopeless countless times. Yet after talking to him last week, I believe the opposite is true. “It’s important to remember that things are never hopeless,” he tells me. “Just look at the recent example of the doctors, nurses, and first responders—as well as medical advances like the Covid vaccines—and it’s hard not to feel hope.”

In fact, the piece of advice Father Martin has used most frequently during the pandemic, both for himself and when talking to others is this: Despair doesn’t come from God; hope does.

“Despair says, ‘I know better than God; I know nothing can change,’” says Father Martin. “And that’s just false. While it can be very tempting to despair, it’s not accurate.”

Given the news these days—a steady stream of what feels like events that would make anyone despair—I called Father Martin to ask him about his spiritual tips for all of us. What does he do when he reads the news and feels disappointed by what’s happening in the world? What can the rest of us do—whether we’re religious or not—to avoid despair and usher in hope?

What does your practice look like in the face of bad news? What do you do to remain hopeful?

First, I try not to focus too much on all the negative news. I turn off the TV and radio and computer when it all feels overwhelming. And I also try to remember that the 24-hour news cycle means they always have to have something to report. This helps me take things with a grain of salt. I also look for positive things happening as a way to remind myself it’s always a mixed bag.

You can go down a rabbit hole on the internet, spending 24 hours a day looking only at bad news. Or, you could spend that time looking only at good news. Neither of those things are real: that is, things aren’t wholly bad or wholly good. Life is always a mixed bag of good and bad. Right now, I’ll admit, things are pretty bad.

Another thing I try to remember is that there’s always someone more in need of help than you are. There is always an invitation to help someone. Even if you’re quarantined at home, there’s someone lonelier than you are.

Finally, when there’s news that’s unjust and angers you, work against it. That’s when you raise your voice and help people on the margins. One of the reasons I moved into LGBTQ ministry in the church is because of the Pulse Nightclub massacre in 2016, where 49 LGBTQ people were killed. The lack of response from the Catholic church really angered me. So, I decided that I could just be angry—or I could do something.

The indignation and anger we feel sometimes may be coming from God—it’s how God moves us. How else would God move people? Now, every time you’re angry doesn’t mean God is speaking to you! But if you’re angry over injustices happening to someone else, I think it’s a way the Spirit is moving through you.

You’ve gone against the grain a number of times in your life. What would you say to the rest of us who feel inspired to walk our own, wildly authentic path?

Be free of the need for people to love, like, or approve of you. That’s the most important thing.

How do you do that? First, you have to recognize that not everyone’s going to love, like or approve of you. It’s just impossible! And as long as you’re charitable and fighting for the right cause, you’re on the right path. As a Christian, I remember that not everyone liked Jesus! He told us to expect opposition. Now, I’m not comparing myself to Jesus here! But he tells us to expect opposition.

Also, I’d say you have to be comfortable with baby steps. One thing that frustrates me is when change happens and people say, “It’s not enough.” But how else will change happen? It’s not going to happen overnight.

For example, when something positive happens in the church—say, for women or LGBTQ people or any marginalized group—some people say, “It’s not enough.” I prefer to look at the good that’s happening.

One of my heroes is John Lewis. How many decades did he work on civil rights? When he was in his 20s and something didn’t happen, he didn’t quit. To anyone trying to move things in a positive direction, I would say be persistent. Change may not happen in your lifetime, but that doesn’t mean you can’t work toward it.

You’ve written about how many of us have had more time for prayer and spiritual contemplation during the pandemic. How can we hold onto this when we get busy again?

The pandemic has forced people to take stock and learn lessons. The question is, will we learn from those lessons?

After any major life event—a death, the birth of child, a traumatic illness—people learn something. But it’s up to them whether to follow through with those lessons. Someone might say, “I’ll never take so-and-so for granted again,” and then two months later you’re too busy for that person. It’s human. How we move on from this time will be governed by our choice. And by what lessons we put into action.

For example, we’re so grateful when we see loved ones these days after so many months, maybe years, of not seeing them. Will we continue to be grateful when things get back to “normal”—or are we going to let busyness overwhelm us like a tidal wave?

Pope Francis said something beautiful about all this. He said that he hopes we never go back to “normal”; he hopes we’ve changed and learned something from these tough times.

The first time I went out to dinner at a restaurant after the first year of the pandemic, it was like going to Paris! I was so happy. “Wow, look, a waiter! A menu!” I reveled in the entire experience. Wouldn’t it be great if we felt that way about simple things every day? I think the saints do that.

For those of us who want to be more prayerful, or incorporate more spirituality into our everyday lives, how can we do that?

Whether you’re religious or not, the first step is to cultivate an “attitude of gratitude.” At the end of the day, focus on the things you’re grateful for. If you’re a religious person, you can thank God for those things. If you’re a secular person, you can just be thankful.

If you’re religious, you can also be honest with God about your struggles. Then, trust that God’s looking out for you—and look for signs of God’s presence in your life. Much of the spiritual life is about noticing.

For example, if someone sends you a text—even something simple, like, “How are you doing?”—can you see that as a way of God expressing God’s love? If you see a baby laugh, can you see that as God’s joy? If you see a beautiful sunset, can you see it as God’s beauty? These things may seem small. The question is, are we noticing even these small things?  Taken together, they become powerful signs of God’s presence in our daily lives.

This is a big part of Jesuit spirituality: finding God in all things. It’s very easy not to notice. Everyone’s distracted, myself included. In these times, we’re more distracted than ever. So, start with the little things. Oftentimes it’s the little things that are the most magical and beautiful and touching.


James Martin, S.J., is a Jesuit priest, writer, and editor at large of the Jesuit magazine America. He received his Master’s in Divinity (M.Div.) and Master’s in Theology (Th.M.) from the Weston Jesuit School of Theology (now part of Boston College). In addition to his work at America, Fr. Martin has written or edited more than 15 books. The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything and Jesus: A Pilgrimage were both New York Times bestsellers, as was his most recent book Learning to Pray: A Guide for Everyone. He has received over 20 honorary degrees from various colleges and universities, and in 2017 Pope Francis appointed him as consultor to the Vatican’s Dicastery for Communication.


Meghan Rabbitt is an editor at The Sunday Paper, and a writer and editorial strategist whose work is published in national magazines and websites. You can learn more about Meghan and read her work here.

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