Year B Ordinary 4
St. Paul, in his letter to the Corinthians says that unmarried men have anxiety. Married men have anxiety. Unmarried women have anxiety. And married women have anxiety. I’m generally not the smartest guy in the room, but he seems to be saying that everyone has anxiety. There is always something to worry about no matter who you are.
If you are anxious at times, don’t be ashamed about it. We all are. I’m kind of surprised that the problem isn’t worse because, as human beings, we have imaginations. We can come up with every horrible scenario in the world, how everyone is looking at me and talking about me and my parents think I’m a failure. And then when we dwell on those imaginary ills, the heart-rate goes up, blood pressure goes up, we lie awake at night. Even if considering these type of apocalyptic scenarios isn’t on the fore-front of your mind all the time, human beings are capable of imagining not only what’s going on around us, but also the future. We know that we are vulnerable to old age, illness, and we know that we are going to die.
There are ways to numb those sorts of existential anxieties: alcohol, exercising maniacally, cosmetics, entertainment, food…all of these are coping mechanisms for fear. The Israelites are honest about what this all adds up to when they demand, “Let us not again hear the voice of the LORD, our God, nor see this great fire any more, lest we die.” They want God to leave them alone. Why? Because his presence reminds them that this life is not permanent, that there is a power that moves heaven and earth that their lives are not their own, and eventually we all go to meet our Maker and are all held accountable for our actions. It’s an attitude that has not receded in the thousands of years subsequent.
But the anxiety is still here, even if we try not to think about it. Only now, it’s worse because people don’t know what’s causing it anymore. So a very difficult lesson is presented to us – there is no courage in ignorance. To keep God at arms length because believing in him is too unsettling, to forget about his existence because then we can ignore the difficult, challenging questions of the meaning of existence and our religious obligations to the God who gave us existence. It doesn’t work. The Israelites were afraid. They constantly retreated to false gods and second-guessed their leaders. They rebelled and got lost in the desert and almost abandoned their inheritance. St. Paul counseled the anxious Corinthians. The Corinthians didn’t know what tomorrow was going to bring. The Roman Empire was in flux as the great dynastic family of Caesar struggled to maintain power through persecution, creating a constant threat to the Church. We too live in an age of anxiety. Politicians have us all in a tizzy, advertisers try to make us constantly worried that we aren’t living up to expectations, that we need to buy this or that if we ever want a moment of calm.
St. Francis de Sales says that anxiety is not abstract, it comes from real problems. Paying the mortgage, hoping the kids grow up to be good people, illness, arguments. This anxiety, he says, is the greatest evil that can befall a soul, because it turns us inward and robs us of seeking God’s grace.
So what is the solution to anxiety?
First, know and accept your limitations. Anxiety saps your resources and wastes your energy, it is a flight instinct, a running away, and you might notice on those nature videos that the zebra looks way more stressed out than the lion. But if you know your limits, then you can rest easy that you don’t have to take God’s place, you don’t have to solve the world’s problems, you don’t have to have the biggest, fanciest, fastest car to be happy. You were created to accomplish one thing, to know and love God, everything else is icing on the cake. Your future is in his hands. Tit’s important to develop a concrete understanding of your place in the world, to know what you are not and what you don’t need to be in order to be loved. Finding your limits is to see what is real and live in that context, instead of some imaginary, impossible life that advertising creates for you that no one can live up to. None of us can be the perfect, self-confident model in the magazine picture (not even the model, she’s airbrushed). But we can be ourselves.
Second, define what it is you’re worried about. Say it out loud. I’m worried I might be a bad parent. I’m worried because the furnace might blow up and a new one costs too much money. I’m worried because my dad is sick and might end up in hospice… You are more capable than you know, and once you begin to talk about your anxiety you will see that there are edges to the problem and you can get a grasp at it. This is one of the reasons that confession is so effective, it’s an opportunity to name your sins out loud, take ownership of them, and have them forgiven.
Third, move forward confidently. The fear will never go away, but you can become braver.* We’re all going to die, and we’re all probably kind of anxious about it. That fact never changes, but we can change. St. Paul had the sort of life that if I had to live it I would be a nervous mess. He was thrown in jail, beat up, chased out of town by a rabid mob, and yet it is St. Paul who tells us, “Don’t be anxious about anything.” Why? Because he knew that each step he took was part of God’s plan. He still got beat up and thrown in jail. Eventually he was martyred, but he was never anxious because his hope was centered in Christ Jesus and being with Jesus was his only goal.
Last, don’t be discouraged. St. Francis de Sales says, “God takes pleasure to see you take your little steps; and like a good father who holds his child by the hand, He will accommodate His steps to yours and will be content to go no faster than you. Why do you worry?” Remember, God will not leave you alone! The Israelites can’t handle it? Fine, He sends them prophets to bring back to Him. Our Lord confronts demons and casts them out. Why? Because God is stronger than anything in this world that would cause us to fear. So be courageous, because he is with you.
- full disclosure because I didn’t show my source in the homily itself. The advice on dealing with anxiety is firmly based on a lecture by Dr. Jordan Peterson.