We live in anxious times. That is probably obvious to all of us, yet it can help enormously to name that reality. We’re anxious about immigration issues, even though the number of people entering from Mexico is radically lower than just a few years ago. The financial markets are anxious. We’re anxious about the trajectory of relations with Russia and North Korea and now Venezuela. Britain and Europe are anxious about Brexit and the EU – and whatever happens will have consequences for the United States. This diocese is anxious about episcopal transitions.
Anxiety is a response to perceived threat – and it’s an essential survival response. It’s about heightened awareness of potential threats, and it sets us up physiologically for a drastic response – either to defend ourselves or run away. If we don’t get anxious in the face of real, serious threats, we might not survive until the next one. At the same time, if we are chronically anxious, we literally burn out. Constant physiological readiness for threats is debilitating – it makes us tired, grumpy, and far more vulnerable to serious disease. It’s equally bad for our psychological and spiritual health.
Some of our anxiety is stirred up by crowding, 24/7 newsfeeds, excessive workloads, and congested traffic. Too much information comes our way (not just advertising), and it often seems to demand a response. I heard a radio piece recently about a just-beginning romantic relationship. One person ignored his phone for three hours, and when he looked at it, discovered that the other person had texted him 23 times, getting increasingly demanding and accusatory (NPR, 27 Jan 2019). Finally the two of them were in the same physical location, seeing and hearing each other, and they began to work it out. Their cortisol levels went down and their oxytocin levels went up; i.e., they got a lot less anxious and more loving.
How do we discern which threats we should take seriously? A good friend said years ago, ‘well if it doesn’t cost more than $50 or won’t matter in 5 years, maybe you don’t need to get too excited.’ Having a good friend helps enormously, too.
Much of our anxiety is rooted in our internal sense that we’re not worthy or that somebody is trying to take something vital from us. Both are about competition and scarcity; and both are curable or manageable with deeper love – of self and neighbor. Managing our own anxiety helps others to manage theirs. Practice helps.
When we notice we’re getting anxious, we can take a deep breath and give thanks for that breath and the giver of life. It takes practice, but even a little change makes a difference. Human beings are designed to respond to the anxiety of others, but the ways we do that are often pretty dysfunctional.
We know a different way that actually casts out anxiety. Breathe, remember who loves you (God, and at least a few people!), breathe again, give thanks. Those are moments of Sabbath – time to remember (and re-member the parts of the body: head and heart and spirit; physical, emotional, spiritual).
As we move into Lent, consider how to practice Sabbath moments – breathe, decompress, give thanks, re-member – and discover that love does indeed cast out fear.
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