Reflect for a moment on this perennial reality, Creatures of this earth, that we are, limited in strength and knowledge, vulnerable, prey to all kinds of danger and dying, anxiety and fear have always been near to brain and body at any time.
Indeed, civilization can be seen as one great campaign against our creatureliness, our frailty, our vulnerability, an age-old struggle to house and heal, to hold off the ravages of time, effort to understand and master the world around us, bring under control the threats natural and human. And to the degree that we have been successful in rising above our animal limits, we can only be grateful and, I trust, in our time determined to preserve and advance this noble human endeavor.
But has it reduced our anxiety, softened our worry? Are we less prone to the troubled heart and mind than our ancestors down on the farm, or wherever they were? Indeed, a case can now be made that we live in an age of anxiety unlike any before ours. Think of the worries, the reasons for panic that our vaunted civilization has brought us.
Air travel, seems to me, to typify the predicament. Flight is a marvel of little over half a century. It has enabled us to do and see what our forebearers could only dream of. But for all it has expedited travel and made the world smaller and business better, is it not harder on the nervous system than more primitive forms of movement. With all its delays and hassles, not to mention the uncertainty of trusting your very life into the hands of those unseen ones riding in the front end of that aluminum sausage, wondering whether the captain had a fight with his wife the night before. Buggies did not fall out of the sky. Broadway’s George Kaufmann once said, “I like terra firma – the more firma, the less terra.”
And auto travel is scarcely less stressful, even more dangerous in fact, what with road rage and drunk driving and winter weather. Took a safe driving course with my wife recently. Not that we needed it, rather because we can use the premium reduction that comes with it. One participant suggested that the way to be a safe driver is to assume that everyone else out there is crazy or drunk. Ever occur to us that a mere hundred years ago, the designated driver was the horse.
And we know about the possibility of illnesses our grandparents never dreamt of. The television ads tell us every night about all the troubles of body and mind we must watch out for, and the pills we must buy to save us. We who have children or grandchildren worry now about the internet and the cell phone. We send our kids to schools where we can no longer guarantee their safety or their conduct. Someone the other day defined a neoconservative as a liberal whose daughter has turned thirteen.
And indeed for many the possibility of owning a home, earning a living, raising a family has become more confusing and uncertain in this world where there are no experts who seem to agree about what is going on and what we ought to do about it. A survey of the so-called Generation X surfaces such comments as these. “I fear failure most of all.” “I fear that I will never have a full-time job again. I worry that I will be found increasingly useless and irrelevant.” “ “I fear that I will never know what it is to command respect.” “I fear that I will never know what it is to live without fear, to wake in relative contentment and simplicity, without depression raging in the corners of my mind.”
In a current issue of Atlantic Monthly, an employer opines that the current business climate looks like nothing so much as plain fear. One assembly line worker says that she is holding on to her job by her finger-nails. The result is pervasive anxiety. One man says that some days the whole scene seems like being a deep sea diver who is walking around on the ocean floor in his diving suit, above him is the mother ship to which he is connected by an air-hose- his lifeline. Suddenly he hears a cry coming over his intercom: “Come up at once. The ship is sinking.”
If ever an age seemed, for all its mastery of environment and psyche, designed to generate and sustain anxiety, ours is. Surely it is no accident that so many of our diseases are related to mental and emotional disease. Our effectiveness and efficiency, our capacity to focus on the needs of others, including family affected.
As we never, even with all our technical wizardry, achieve anything like absolute control and security, there lurks ever in the background of our brain the recognition that we remain, for all our efforts, made of neurons and skin. And the result of this recognition is an underground anxiety that depletes our health and undermines our hope.
The poet caught us well. “This is the age of the half-read page, the quick hash and the mad dash. This is the age of the bright night with the nerves tight and the plane hop with a brief stop. This is the Age of the lamp tan in a short span, the brain strain and the heart pain, and the catnaps till the spring snaps and the funs done.”
So much for the good news. So how do we deal with all this, our anxieties, the pervasiveness of fear all around. First of all, by facing them. Notice how the old Biblical faith is up front about that. It is all over the old book. “No one shall make you afraid. Do not be afraid of anyone. You need have no fear of them. Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid. Do not fear or be dismayed. You will not fear the terror of the night. Do not be alarmed. Be not afraid of their faces. Arise and be not afraid. Do not worry about your life. Do not be anxious about tomorrow. Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid.”
Clearly this old story sees fear and anxiety as front and central in the task and challenge of our living, our laboring, our loving.
If there is anything new about the scene, it is the emergence of cultures and character types who have managed to submerge anxiety to the point where we are not aware of it and what it is doing to us.
To a greater degree than past generations, we moderns have developed an array of diversions that enable us to submerge our anxieties.. What the late Neil Postman, Professor of Communication at New York University, a few years ago called, “Amusing Ourselves To Death.” Sit for hours before the tube, or the internet, or go to scary movies or an exciting ball game or engage extreme sports ourselves. Anything to take our mind off reality, provide us with escape.
Now, nothing wrong with trying to manage a measure of control or going mindless a bit. But the problem with all our diversions is that they are temporary, only allow us to forget our worries for a time. And even if we don’t feel scared, are not breaking out in sweat, some anxiety may well be eating away at us inside.
“ Have no anxiety.” writes the apostle to his friends from his prison cell in Rome. “Have no anxiety. In prayer with thanksgiving, make your needs known to God…not because God needs to know them but because you do.” Dennis Gersten, M.D. asks, “Where is the fear in your body? What are the fearful thoughts and images? Just observe…allowing the fear to arise, change and dissolve. Embrace your fear. For the experience of embracing the fear, immersing oneself in the fear, allows for the beginnings of transformation of the fear.”
Surface the fear. And spot the attitude behind the fear. What do our anxieties say about reality. They tell us, do they not, that sooner or later life will undoubtedly turn sour, dark, unfortunate, tragic. Sooner or later we will lose, fail, be miserable, slip away. Isn’t that what our anxieties keep intimating.
But what if that is not the truth. “And now my friends, all that is true, all that is noble, all that is just and pure, all that is lovable and attractive, whatever is excellent and admirable – fill all your thoughts with these things. And the peace of God will be with you.”
Sounds like an affirmation of optimism. Picked up a German news magazine on a flight home recently, to find that the very extensive cover story was about serious research on the subject. To wit that the hopeful are more successful, have more friends, take better care of themselves, live longer. And interestingly the best known researcher acknowledges that he is basically a pessimist.
Why? The Apostle is not simply begging here for some kind of thought exercise, mind control. Keep your mind on good stuff and the bad won’t bother you. He is talking about attention to the truth that there are realities that win out in life. Because of the resurrection faith born with Jesus, we know that God really is near and therefore in some ultimate sense life always turns out all right. even if at times it is all wrong, scarry, troubled, disappointing. Ultimately life will be all right.
Peter Berger, a sociologist, made this concrete by reflecting on a mother comforting her child: “A childwakes up in the night, perhaps from a bad dream…beset by nameless threats. At such a moment the contours of trusted reality are blurred or invisible and in the terror of incipient chaos the child cries out for his mother…It is she (and in many cases she alone) who has the power to banish the chaos and restore the benign shape of the world…She will speak or sing to the child, and the content of this communication will invariably be the same – ‘Don’t be afraid – everything is in order, everything is all right.’ If all goes well, the child will be reassured, his trust in reality recovered… Then Berger asks the real question, “Is the mother lying to the child?”
Everything is in order, everything is all right – this is the basic formula of maternal and parental reassurance. Not just this particular anxiety, not just this particular pain – but everything is all right. The formula can, without in any way violating it, be translated into a statement of cosmic scope – “Have trust in being.” And if we are to believe the child psychologists…this is an experience that is absolutely essential to the process of becoming a human person.
Yet, mother’s words can only be justified within a religious frame of reference. For in this frame of reference the natural world within which we are born, love, and die is not the only world, but only theforeground of another world in which love is not annihilated in death, and in which, therefore, trust in the power of love to banish chaos is justified. Mother’s role is not based on a loving lie. On the contrary, it is a witness to the ultimate truth of man’s situation in reality. Everything will be all right.”
This is the good news that an old gospel presses upon us. But this is more than just gospel and gift, this word. It is also challenge and task. Spot what our anxiety is saying so that we may fight it with the truth about life.
What are the things we fill our minds with if we are not careful? The interminable television debates. The latest local brutalities. The bombs in Bombay elsewhere. The kidnappings and hijackings. All the agonies and ugliness that fills the newspaper and screen. Fill your minds day in and day out with these and then expect the fear to subside and anxiety to soften and hope to win out. Good luck. Or rather, here is another diversion which can save us from discouragement and despair these things induce.
Finding discipline and place in our minds and hearts for the good, the true, the gifts of God past and present. God is near. The reality that life is not in our control, does not mean it is out of control. God is near. And we can trust him with minds and lives. Must trust him in our heart of hearts.It is such a worn cliché, one almost hesitates to say it one more time. But it is the answer that comes at us again and again out of this old faith. The call for the daily discipline in which, having done all we are able, we turn our lives over to God, trust them to his power and love. Fill your minds with this.
Surrender of our cares to another word. This inner movement of trust in another word is the only reality that enables us to take back our life with each new day, go out into it once more, live it effectively and caringly and with joy. No matter what comes, yes, even death. In fact it is only as we slowly but surely learn to trust this word even there, that we are able to trust here on a fine morning in the midst of life. So trust does not come as a package we can tuck away. Not a passing warm glow or settled complacency. Not easy but a daily confrontation with the higher realities of life and a deliberate inner move into confidence in God and his love that can sustain us all the way to the end..
The late Rosalind Russell, noted for her many film portrayals of witty, sophisticated career-women, also experienced many triumphs on the Broadway Stage. But friends who knew her thought her greatest triumph was her gallant fight against arthritis and cancer, a struggle which she carried out to the very end with a remarkable sense of gratitude and joy and peace. After her death in 1976, they found this poem tucked away in her prayer book: Trust Him when dark doubts assail thee, Trust Him when your faith is small, Trust Him when simply to trust Him is the hardest thing of all.”
An old man named Paul sits in a Roman prison under the shadow of impending execution and writes to dear friends, “Have no anxiety. God is near…always. “ Fill all your thoughts…with these….