“I am going to die.”
I was standing in the downstairs showroom of REI in St. Louis. Already on its way to becoming my favorite store (admittedly from a guy whose shopping is rather limited), I had gone to purchase some long since forgotten piece of outdoor equipment. Walking from the parking lot, I had felt a little strange, although nothing I could clearly articulate. Yet as I stepped inside and began looking for a salesperson to help me with my purchase, I suddenly felt a huge surge of anxiety well up inside of me. As my heart and respiration rate increased dramatically, and I felt unexpectedly flushed, I quickly found myself not only unable to solicit help as I had planned but rather worried about what was going on. Even as a psychologist in training who was familiar with the symptoms of a panic attack, I was taken aback by the spontaneous fear that welled up inside of me; not only did I feel self-conscious, but I began to wonder if something was seriously wrong.
For every person that has ever experienced anxiety in a significant way, which means every single person of a reasonable age, we know that the most visceral reaction is one of self-preservation. Whether the anxiety stems from an actual threat, such as grizzly bear or a lightning bolt, or an existential threat, such as fear of embarrassment, there is no doubting the unpleasantness of the experience. Even in situations whereby anxiety stems from a positive event, such as a wedding, the feeling of nervousness can be disconcerting at best. Due to the inherent discomfort, all anxiety impels the receiver to one of two actions (or both): avoidance or control. Human beings find comfort in what they can control, and what they can avoid, even if they (explicitly or implicitly) know that doing so repeatedly can bring about negative outcomes in the long-term, such as the inability to function in social situations or the development of impairing compulsions designed to reduce obsessive fears.
At the heart of all anxiety is loss—loss of health, loss of status (e.g., respect), loss of affiliation (e.g., belonging, love), and loss of life. To be clear, some anxiety is both productive and necessary in preserving the human species, both in reality and existentially. Human beings that have zero worry about losing comfort, status, affiliation, and life would not only be limited in their survival, but they would also be isolated in it, too. And so it seems that we were created as beings with worry to preserve what is most important, including communion with each other.
And yet, as the world is rampant with anxiety, there is no doubt that fear is running the show more than ever these days. We are a people so fearful of our fears that we can hardly see the tremendous blessings that run through them. The irony is that the more we have, the more fearful of a people we have become. I daresay there are many kids (and adults) in Haiti— some of which my friends and family have come to know closely—that are less overcome by fear than those of us sitting in our insured, temperature-regulated homes writing articles on our laptops.
If you are reading this, and you believe what I am saying to be true, then suddenly we find ourselves in a, well, very uncomfortable place. It is as if we are more concerned with protecting what we have, and at times, acquiring even more, than embracing what we have been given. And if this is true, then only a radical change in our mindset will be the catalyst for reducing these incessant, stifling fears.
Yet, what is this remarkable perspective shift that I am proposing? It begins with two of the most basic ideas, and then cascades from there. Most of us already know that the most repeated phrase (or variant of) in the Bible is “do not be afraid.” As I noted early, all fear is grounded in loss. Just as I feared loss of status (and even loss of life) that day in REI, and everyone who experiences anxiety also fears some type of loss, so it is that anxiety always brings us back to this notion. And it is here that I propose that unhealthy anxiety creates the biggest lie of all, and suggests that if we are going to be a people freeing ourselves from overwhelming anxiety, we must turn the tables on this lie.
Imagine for a moment that you have been exiled to a faraway island due to an infectious disease acquired at no fault of your own. Alone on this island, with no shelter and barely enough sustenance to get you through the day, life itself is a tenuous, hour by hour proposition. Combined with unpredictable weather and no prospects of any visitors, you find yourself completely “castaway” from all life as you know it, which by the amnestic nature of your disease, you have all but forgotten about your former life. But one day, a man you have never seen rows to shore, and offers you food, comfort, and a blessing, and an offer to take you off the island to his village the following day. That night, you suddenly find yourself free of all illness and with a sudden awareness of all the prospects that come with his promise; the following day, the man returns and takes you to his town, where you gradually learn the language and go on to live your days with newfound family, community, and a long, satisfying life. In this scenario, from the moment this man arrived on the island to the moment of your eventual death, just how would you have first regarded all that was provided for you? Would you have first looked at these occurrences as gifts to be grateful for or commodities which you must acquire and protect. I daresay that each of us (hopefully) would have looked at the development of comfort, status, affiliation, and life in general as a tremendous gift, something you or I could not have fathomed wandering alone and naked on this deserted island.
I provide this example because as radical as it may seem, I truly believe that in thwarting the greatest lie anxiety has ever told, we must come to regard all life, and all aspects of goodness of life (sometimes even encased in trials) as gifts to be embraced FIRST, not losses to be protected against or assets to be acquired. In order to do this, we must also embrace the idea that life by its nature is a grand adventure FIRST full of triumphs and tribulations (sometimes one in the same), not prosperity threatened by unfortunate circumstances to be avoided at all costs.
In saying this, you might immediately roll your eyes as if you have heard this trite explanation before. With all apologies for my brusqueness, if this is your reaction, you are missing the point. What I am saying is that standing in the store having a panic attack, or washing your hands for the 30th time in the last hour, or cowering in the closet to avoid the next spousal rage, or finding yourself breathless in the middle of a crowd, there are two distinct phrases that must enter our minds at some juncture if we are going to begin the journey of freeing ourselves from the slavery of fear. These phrases are simple, but embracing them is not.
Thank you God that I am still alive to fear, as dead people have no anxiety at all.
Thank you God for this adventure of life, even though right now I am scared I am going to die (bodily or existentially).
Repeatedly, we must confront the lies that anxiety perpetuates (I am not going to be able to breathe — Thank you God that I am still breathing; People are going to think that I am so weird—Thank you God that I have the awareness to worry about the impressions others have of me; I am going to get COVID and die—Thank you God for the immune system you have given to me so that it is possible I will not. We are going to go bankrupt and my kids won’t have what they need; Thank you God for giving me enough financial security to have met my kids’ needs to this point. And on, and on, and on…
Ultimately, the radical mindset shift that is needed to combat a world full of rampant anxiety can be best expressed in a prayer that is as follows:
Dear God, I thank you for every gift You provide, from the smallest nerve cells in my toes to the tiniest of neurons that powers each thought and feeling that I have. Thank you for the people in my life, the natural world, and ultimately the mysterious gift of You. Help free me from my unnecessary worries by first embracing all the gifts imparted before seeking to protect them, and acquire even more. When I fear loss of health, let me first embrace any and every aspect of well-being that I have been granted. When I fear loss of status, let me first embrace the respect I have been given. When I fear loss of affiliation, let me first embrace the love I have been bestowed. When I fear death, let me first embrace the life I have been endowed. In all of my fears, let me first see gifts given rather than losses which may come. I know I will die someday. But in the meantime, help me castaway my anxieties and find great beauty, purpose, and peace in this adventure of life. Amen.