Immunity to Worry…is it possible?

“Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.” Matthew 6:34 (NIV)

This feels really hard right now. I am tempted to worry about many things…Covid-19, school for the kids’ this fall, the state of division in this country, etc…

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I was asked recently if I am afraid of the level of anxiety in the world around me, as I think of my children moving into adulthood in the midst of this culture (my oldest is starting high school!). Anxiety comes from many sources, which often vary based upon our particular setting and communities. It can be based on fear, uncertainty, instability, a lack of safety, or even a generalized discomfort with one’s sense of self, whether internally or externally imposed.

In short, my answer was “Yes, I am afraid; but I am also hopeful.” I went on to explain that I believe there is a way to be free from anxiety’s chokehold.  I am seeking to both point my children to it and live it out, recognizing that it is a way to walk in, not a magic solution.

Let me be clear, however, that I am not talking about clinical anxiety, which may require medication and other help. I am not denying that such serious mental health issues exist. I am speaking more generally of the type of anxiety that seems to just permeate the air around us. It is the kind of anxiety that is particularly rampant in a community like the one I live in. This is a college town where a significant percentage of the adults who work here have graduate degrees and have high hopes for their children’s academic success. This is a town where the college students themselves seem trapped in a rat race towards the elusive academic record and ideal compilation of internships and research that they perceive is necessary to even be on the list to maybe get the “dream job” that they believe will bring admiration and financial stability, if not happiness.

I am also speaking of the kind of anxiety that comes when we realize that we actually don’t have control over our lives—when something like Covid-19 can come and snatch away family members, health, school, job offers, travel, activities, and even a graduation ceremony—and there is nothing we can do about it.

When I say I want to escape the grasp of this kind of creeping anxiety, what is it I want instead? In my experience, if I want to avoid something, it is most helpful to know what I want instead.  Otherwise, if I am focused on avoiding the negative thing, I tend to get drawn right back into it… So what is the opposite of anxiety? One attractive word is “peace.” I think that concept is pointing in the right direction; this is part of it…but I’m not sure it is quite enough to give me the vision I need to escape anxiety. Peace is more of a result of having gotten away from anxiety, not the way out.  My mind goes to visualizing a race and someone just sitting in the road, trying to ignore it all, breathing deeply and covering their ears…That isn’t real peace…not yet. I need something to help me get out of the road; to step out of the rat race. I want to be present and active (not disengaged), but also not trapped in the parameters of the race.

A better word for me is “freedom.” I want to be free from the race for “success” defining me. I want to be able to step out of it without the tentacles of fear grabbing my heart and causing me to believe that I have no value apart from how well I do in that race; that I have no value apart from my status, my ranking, or my estimation in the eyes of others.

So how can we possibly be free from that anxiety, if it is in the air we breathe? How can we be free from the pressure of the race, if we see no other option than to keep racing? It makes me think of one of the funny scenes of “The Princess Bride” (one of my kids’ favorite movies) when there is a “Battle of Wits” between Westley and Vizzini.  In explaining how he is still alive after drinking poisoned goblet, Westley says “they were both poisoned. I spent the last few years building up an immunity to iocane powder.”

Perhaps, like Westley, we need an immunity to anxiety. We need to be able to choose to fully participate in life in all of its complexity, but to be confident that it won’t kill us; that it can’t destroy us…

Some people try to achieve this immunity to life’s pressures by using their power and privilege. That might work in a hollow way for a while. But it by default excludes all numbers of people—based on race, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, etc.  It ends up perpetuating the problem, and usually fails at some point, even for those with the most extreme levels of privilege.  The true solution must be one that is available to all people, not just the wealthy or privileged.

The first definition of “immunity” on dictionary.com is “the state of being immune from or insusceptible to a particular disease or the like.” How in the world can I be “insuceptible” to both the pressures of academic/career/parenthood performance and/or the fear of losing what I have?

The Bible gives some ideas of how to have defenses to fight these toxins—these ideas that our value is completely defined by the elusive concepts of achieving “safety” or “success.”

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It uses the image of a tree with deep roots. It is a tree firmly grounded; its roots go down to deep waters that cannot be dried up. Jeremiah 17:7-8 says that it “does not fear when heat comes, for its leaves remain green, and is not anxious in the year of drought, for it does not cease to bear fruit.” Notice that its strength does not come from itself, but from an external constant source. Its hope is in something outside of itself and outside of the temporary…

The Bible also presents a central part of this immunity as being found in secure relationship.  It is in places of unconditional acceptance and love that we are able to flourish and to face hardship.  In the classic Psalm 23, verse 4 says, “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.” In Psalm 94, a Psalm weeping over injustice and clinging to the reality that God sees and cares, the Psalmist says in v. 19, “When the cares of my heart are many, your consolations cheer my soul.” Jesus himself also adds to this picture of relationship being central. He says, in Jn 14:27, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid.”

It is the fact that this relationship is with the Creator God who knows us, who loves us in the midst of our failings, who sacrificed himself and who conquered death to make a way for people to have relationship with the holy and powerful God, who will bring justice, and who comforts in the midst of affliction those who are waiting and trusting in Him. Our position before God is not based on status or rankings, but on relationship—being adopted and fully loved by Him. He wants us to flourish and live well in the world, but not so that we are accepted—rather because we are accepted.

It is this knowledge that frees me from worry. Therefore I will breathe in and out and remember that my roots are deep, “casting all [my] anxieties on him, because he cares for [me]” (I Peter 5:7).

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