My Anxieties Have Anxieties
When I was about 10 years old I lived next door to a wonderful friend. He was my age and His name was Jack. Jack had an intellectual disability, but he loved life and we used to enjoy playing with our Tonka trucks out in the yard. We had a lot of fun together passing the time away.
One summer day I went over in the morning to play. It was a special day because it was Jack’s birthday. As we engaged in driving these miniature trucks, backhoes and excavators around, he reminded me that it was his birthday that day and that he was having a party in the afternoon. He was so excited because his foster mom was making him a huge chocolate cake, with lots of sugar and frosting, and he was going to eat it all, though he repeatedly assured me he’d save at least a sliver for me and the others coming to the party.
Anyways, at one point while we were engrossed in running our trucks into each other, he stood up and announced that he needed to go into the house for a minute. But, he assured me that he would return fairly quickly. Well, some time passed and no Jack. Then, out of nowhere, I heard a scream come from inside, “Jack! Jack, you get into this kitchen right now!” When I heard the scream, I knew something was up. I went into the house and peeked my head into the kitchen and saw Jack standing there.
What had happened was that when Jack went into the house, he saw the chocolate cake sitting there on the kitchen table and couldn’t resist. He took a number of bites, quickly woofed them down, and then summarily ran to another part of the house, probably because he heard his foster mom coming. As soon as she saw the cake, she knew what had happened and she immediately demanded his presence to stand trial; he would stand trial right there in front of the cake. He eventually mustered the courage and ushered himself, rather awkwardly, into her presence, to be questioned, right there in front of the mangled cake. The question came forth: “Jack, what did you do to the cake?? Did you take some of this cake?” Now, I snuck in to watch the debacle. Jack protested! He protested vehemently. He argued! He swore allegiance. But, to no avail. Why?
But, there was something I knew that Jack did not. He had chocolate cake from ear to ear, high on his cheeks and stuck in his teeth. The evidence on his face told the truth. He couldn’t hide it.
The Verdict Is In: We Are Anxious People
The truth is, chocolate cake is not the only thing on our faces that we can’t hide. We often times can’t hide how we’re feeling. We try to deny it, like Jack, but the truth is there seems to be a lever between our hearts and our faces. If our hearts are pushed in a certain direction, the evidence shows up on the face. And, at no point does this appear to be truer than when we’re feeling fearful, worried or anxious. We’re not good at hiding that emotion. The grind in our hearts puts a grimace on our face.
A further truth is that people from all walks of life, backgrounds, and socio-economic strata wrestle with mild to severe worry and anxiety, triggered in innumerable ways and resulting in a variety of symptoms. At one time or another, to one degree or another, and in one form or another, statistics show that we’ll likely face not just low grade anxieties and fears, but that we’ll go through seasons, one or more, when fears, worries and anxieties threaten to hijack our very lives, commandeer our decisions and possibly even disturb and otherwise affect our health, relationships, careers and prospects for the future.
The American Psychiatric Association says that anxiety related disorders affect nearly 30% of adults at some point in their lifetime, including generalized anxiety disorders, panic disorder and social anxiety disorder, as well as a handful of others.1 It seems that the song, Don’t worry, be happy” is a great melody but as Mark Twain said, “even if all the music should perish out of the world, that song would continue to sing to me!” Twain is right. “Worry is a thin stream trickling through the mind”, as Arthur Somers Roche says, “that if encouraged, cuts a channel into which all other thoughts are drained.”
These fears can be light and momentary – the kind that seem to pass rather quickly, and those of a more debilitating nature – anxieties that affect our normal course of life, our health, our relationships, jobs, and, according to the research, a good deal more.
Even our regular experiences can be hijacked. We begin to exhibit undo and excessive fear, worry and anxiety around normal experiences in life, such as preparing for an exam, arriving on time for a job interview, facing the prospects of layoffs at work. These are all challenges, but sometimes they trigger far too much anxiety. To be concerned about how our children are doing, how my job is going, how my aging parents are doing…these are all normal concerns. But, sometimes it shows on our face, that we are struggling with excessive worry about life, worry about our futures that are more than momentary concerns.
Over 264M people worldwide, according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America have been diagnosed with some form of anxiety disorder, such as Generalized Anxiety Disorder and Social Anxiety Disorder.
Often these fears and anxieties bubble up to the surface in personal and cultural restlessness, in our marriages, attitudes toward work, and in our addictions to things like alcohol, gaming, sex, purchasing, and a variety of other avoidant behaviors the evidence of anxiety lays bare on our faces.
But, I wonder if our anxieties, as an underlying fact of everyone’s experience, speak to more than biochemical realities and their effects in the brain and the body. I wonder if medication, while often necessary and very helpful in calming certain anxieties, really strikes at the heart of the root cause. Is there more to our fears, worries, and anxieties than the typically listed triggers and symptoms?
Perhaps we were never designed to do life apart from God and that all our anxieties and restlessness are signs from Him to point us back to Him. What if our anxieties and discomforting uncertainties are the result of a catastrophic breech in our souls, stemming from a much greater breech in our relationship with the One who made us in whom we live, move and have our very being and to whom we are accountable? As Augustine said, He has made us for Himself and our hearts are restless, and they will not find their rest until they find their rest in Him. Could it be that anxiety is a sign of God’s presence, a sign that He wants to use to point us back to Himself? Perhaps we were never designed to do life apart from God and the ultimate source of our anxiety stems from that singular reality. We are in a spiritual Waste Land.
Jesus Speaks into the Darkness of our Worries and Anxieties
Sermon on the Mount. Jesus saw through to the root of our worries and concerns and He spoke into our experience of anxiety on several occasions. One of the most profound sermons he ever preached contains a good deal in it that pertains to excessive worry and anxiety and how to best understand and deal with it. It’s called the Sermon on the Mount, found in the Gospel of Matthew, chapters 5-7. You may even be quite familiar with this sermon, but if not, it’s still quite likely that you’ve heard bits and pieces of it quoted now and again. You’ve probably heard, “Blessed are the meek for they shall inherit the earth” or “blessed are the peacemakers” or “blessed are the merciful” or “Do not judge” or some other piece of that sermon.
You may not be familiar, however, with Matthew 6:25-34, wherein Jesus specifically shines the spotlight on the universal human problem of worry and anxiety. While He has many insightful comments to make and a good deal of wisdom to share with us, I want to tease out three comments He makes to help us deal with fear, worry and anxiety.
So, what does Jesus say about anxiety? First, like many other great teachers, Jesus talks about the futility of worry? In 6:27 he asks the rhetorical question: “Who of you can add a single hour to his life by worrying?” Who among us can change our lifespan by worrying about it? Worry will not achieve that for which we intend it, so to speak. Perhaps that’s why we don’t see many birds anxiously building more nests than their neighbors, squirrels with panic attacks because they haven’t laid up enough nuts for two winters, and dogs losing sleep for lack of bones buried in the backyard. Worry is futile. Jesus knows it. But, that does not mean that it cannot achieve something.
All the research tells us that excessive fears, worries and anxieties do have a deleterious affect on our bodies over time, wearing us down and often connected to varieties of sickness, with further connections to related maladies of IBS, diabetes, thyroid problems and even to heart disease.2
On the contrary, worry shortens our lives, if anything. It certainly does nothing to lengthen them. And, not only does it potentially shorten them, it can also diminish our enjoyment of the few days we are given on the planet, causing us, as Jesus says, to run here and there and everywhere trying to make our lives work. The truth is, as far as accomplishing its desired ends, worry is a failure; it’s futile. It’s like the American writer and humorist, Erma Bombeck said, “Worry is like a rocking chair: it gives you something to do but never gets you anywhere.”
Once we truly begin to realize that not only is it harmful to us and can actually severely limit or ruin good chunks of our future, but also that it is absolutely futile, we may be open to another way of understanding our experience and life here. I mean, worry reminds me of the futility of Sisyphus.
If we are open to what Jesus is telling us here, that our excessive and anxious concerns for our personal future and various aspects within it – that it’s a cul-de-sac of the soul, a dead end, wherein we deeply invest our future hopes in having that thing, experiencing a relationship with that person, possessing that job or career, our zeal to make sure that nothing bad ever happens to ourselves and the ones we love – if we can let that stance toward our future go, then we may have “ears to hear” the rest of what Jesus says regarding what really matters in life and we may even begin to enter into Life itself.
The second reality is to begin to open ourselves, regardless of our experiences in this world, to the truth, as Jesus affirms – that we are valuable to God Himself and that He longs to be good to what He has fashioned, what He has made with His own fingers. Jesus says that if God provides for the birds, how much more you? If He clothes the grass and flowers of the field, how much more you? Are you not of much more value than these (6:26)? After all, grasses and flowers, though multi-splendored are in many cases thrown into a fire to provide fuel for cooking. But, why then are we anxious? Why then are we plagued with so much worry?
The third thing Jesus speaks about, and this stands at the heart of why we struggle with anxiety. It’s because even though anxiety is ultimately futile and will wreck our health, and even though we possess incalculable worth in God’s eyes – despite our experiences here and now – and even though He promises to care for our needs as He does the birds of the air and the flowers of the field, we have little faith (6:30). Our problem is that we do not trust Him personally and explicitly, and since we are thus disconnected from Him, by our own doing, we live in a world that we must manage, we must incessantly and nervously guard, protect, and engineer all on our own, and we’re simply unable to do it. We possess neither the wisdom nor the strength, neither the intellectual prowess nor the virtue. Both history as well as our personal lives tell the truth.
So, Jesus says, the way forward is to trust your heavenly Father and His goodness toward you. The way to deal with anxieties, worries, and fears is by recognizing that we have turned away from God and now need to admit that, and at His invitation, return to Him through Christ, experiencing lasting peace with Him and from Him, taking up His concerns and pursuits, entering and seeking above all His kingdom (6:33). We were not made to do life apart from Him; we were made to enter into and seek His kingdom which begins by turning our weary and burdened hearts to Him. He makes this precise point, 5 chapters later in Matthew 11:28-29, where He says,
11:28 Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. 11:29 Take my yoke on you and learn from me, because I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.
Our worries and anxieties about life go far deeper than the triggers that occasion them and the symptoms we experience. Anxiety is a sign of God’s presence to us even while we seek to be absent to Him. It is a sign that we are not intended to construct a world without God – which we are simply unable to do – but rather turn our lives over to Him in Christ, and our fears, worries, and anxieties to the One who holds the future.
- https://www.psychiatry.org/patients-families/anxiety-disorders/what-are-anxiety-disorders; “Anxiety disorders are the most common of mental disorders and affect nearly 30 percent of adults at some point in their lives.”