December 12, 2023

Overcoming the Sunday Scaries

Learning how what you value shapes your week.

The orientation of the heart happens from the bottom up, through the formation of our habits of desire. Learning to love (God) takes practice.”

James K.A. Smith, You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit

Where do virtues fit into the work week?

So many of us know the feeling well. It’s Sunday afternoon. A new week of responsibilities is upon us, and with it, the anxiety of how we’re going to get it all done. Over 90% of Millennials and Gen Zs say they experience the “Sunday Scaries,” which is a feeling of dread or overwhelm at the prospect of returning to work on a Monday morning. If you’re a planner, you may sit down to intentionally create a routine, prioritizing the things that are most important. Yet, in the midst of making our to-do lists, we can get side tracked by the urgent and forget what is important. We rarely stop on a Sunday amidst the anxiety that’s looming to think about setting aside time to develop who we want to become – and how we might support it by developing our character. Character development can feel ambiguous. It can feel vague and overwhelming, but it is essential if we’re trying to live a good life where we can thrive.

Everyone has their own understanding of what constitutes a good life. Our concept of what is good is shaped by our inner proclivities, our cultures, our contexts and our communities. One of the benefits of participating in a community of faith is that religion offers a vision of a good and flourishing life as well as an ultimate purpose, or telos, and these communities provide support for pursuing these ultimate ends. 

How do psychologists understand the importance of character development in supporting a good life? “Character [development] motivate[s]  and enable[s] the individual to seek truth and goodness. Character is rooted in desire for what is true, right, and good, and a honed ability  to  translate that desire into effective action. The term virtue is often used to describe a quality of character when it is well established.” Therefore, intentionality is necessary if we’re going to live a virtuous life because virtue isn’t accidental. It’s a falsity to think that people who were given the title of Saint, like Mother Theresa or St. Francis of Assisi, just happened to live a life of virtue. They had both deep conviction and communal support. 

Virtues require a habituated set of psychological processes that enable us to know, feel, and do what is right in order to thrive over the long haul. When we think of virtue, it is easy to over intellectualize it. We think of virtues as just having a strong sense of what is moral or right. But, virtues are more than what we believe; virtues are embodied. Our thoughts, actions and behaviors result from the virtues we cultivate. Our answer to the question, “what does it mean to live a virtuous life?” will largely depend on the context that we are enfolded into. As social beings, we are byproducts of our environments and most importantly our relationships. Our relationships with God, with others and with ourselves shape how we think about virtue. 

And on a Sunday afternoon, as you’re writing out your to-do list, chances are you aren’t thinking about virtue as your top priority. To live virtuously is to choose to live courageously, seeking the good for not just yourself but for those around you. Thriving cannot be done without others – there is a reciprocity involved in thriving. Our virtues aren’t formed in an insulated vacuum—we can’t talk about virtues without talking about people. Virtue development, which is the conscious and intentional choice to pursue the “good,” takes place in the context of close, connected relationships throughout our lives.

In our weekly lives, we may not stop to think about how we are a part of something much bigger than ourselves. That’s why transcendent narratives, such as stories or belief systems that are passed down from parents or grandparents or our communities, provide a means of connecting with something beyond our own lived experiences. They help us to identify the virtues we might cultivate. Feelings of transcendence reinforce these narratives and can be as holy as worshiping with someone you love or as wholesome as sharing a meal that your family has made for years. 

Experiencing the transcendent can remind us of our telos in a way that psychological science cannot. Psychology can identify the character strengths necessary for pursuing virtue, but deep connections and community really matter. Everyone exists within some sort of social context and moral ecology where there is an often unspoken “rule” that everyone is living by. This is why when we are exposed to certain virtues, we may be motivated to pursue these virtues further. Virtues, such as hope or love are contagious. We become people of virtue by continuously exposing ourselves to people, places and things that cultivate that virtue within us, time and time again.

Virtue practices are not just for the intellectual. Practices that involve multiple senses can help us feel held, bring us into deeper awareness of our surroundings, and help us transcend our typical ways of being. So let us go back to our dining room table on Sunday afternoon. Before we begin to write our to-do list, consider how we would begin our list if our first priority was to live a virtuous life. 

Let’s not oversimplify it. We can’t always plan to experience the transcendent, meaning we can’t always plan to experience something that pulls us beyond ourselves. But we can pursue practices that remind us that we are a part of a web of people, experiences and rituals that extend far beyond ourselves. Transcendence is just as much about spontaneity as it is structure. It might mean that we plan for space in our week to open ourselves to the possibility of experiencing the transcendent. And why is it important to experience the transcendent? Because the transcendent and experiences of God’s love sustain us as we make the hard choices to live virtuously and live into our purposes. The transcendent reminds us that we are the beloved and that we have the capacity to love and be loved.

We don’t have to passively wait for something transcendent to happen to us. Realistically, not everyone has the capacity to retreat, especially on a weekly basis to seek the transcendent. When we look at our days and weeks, we are required to engage often and retreat little. Transcendence can be as mundane as holding the hand of a loved one, praying or singing on your way home from work, or stopping to watch the sunset before you head home for the night. Transcendent moments can come over the stillness of a hot cup of coffee or a conversation with a close friend. They can happen passively, but transcendence reminds us of the virtues we’re cultivating within the mundane, which we experience through the embodied daily rhythms that shape our lives.

Creating habits and rhythms in pursuit of character development might seem like another daunting thing to add to the Sunday to do list. It might make the “Sunday Scaries” feel even scarier at first, but living more intentionally into what is meaningful, and creating habits to align our weeks with what really matters to us, and creating moments to experience those embodied emotions that support those pursuits, might actually help us beat the “Scaries” over time. Read more about how we can pursue a rhythm of virtue by building transcendent moments into our lives. 

Shaya Aguilar Thrive Fellow / Writer
Shaya Aguilar Writer


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