Friday, January 22, 2010

On the ghosts of anxiety

For me a very consoling part of the sermon on the mount remains Jesus’ speech in Matt 6: 22-34 on our daily worries and how we are supposed to deal with them.

We all know such worries and anxieties all too well – those irrational thoughts and fears, which often disturb and wake us at night, leaving us in a cold sweat or with a knot in the stomach…because we worry and agonise about so many things – unresolved conflict, concerns about the future, the long list of “to-do” things, bills that need to be paid, outstanding tax forms, even putting out the garbage and watering the plants!

At the beginning of the year, many people are plagued by feelings of anxiety about things that need to be started up and put in place. Seemingly trivial matters can, as we all know, make life really unpleasant, if not outrightly miserable, robbing us of our peace of mind and even of our hopeful prospects. When anxiety enters, our inner tranquility and often our much needed rest departs, and may even be destroyed. Then the mind wakes up with all kinds of irrational thoughts, fears and images. People who suffer from anxiety, often have limited control over it: they lose their calm, their bodies become tense, they feel overwhelmed and paralyzed, unable to pray or view things positively. The world suddenly seems a dark and unfriendly place, the way ahead untraversable, impossible, almost like an insurmountable mountain.

How does one deal with these daily worries, the ghosts that feed our anxiety?
According to Jesus most of our worries or feelings of anxiety are directly related to our daily concerns about physical and material sustenance, our economic and social security.

Of course, such concerns are not unimportant. Jesus does not suggest that we should be indifferent or careless regarding our health or the material and physical provision for ourselves, our family and others. But according to Matt 6, if we exclusively and constantly focus on these concerns, our vision may become blurred, murky, skewed (v 22-23); then our anxieties multiply and we become more vulnerable to disappointment and disaster than we need to be (v 19-21). Therefore, so Jesus reminds us, there should be a deeper concern in our lives, a greater worry, a higher priority – one to which we should constantly turn and return with more dedicated focus. Our attention should be directed towards what Jesus calls the kingdom of God.

This phrase may sound rather abstract, removed from our daily toils and nightly restlessness. But taken seriously, the kingdom of God in the long run generates a totally new and liberating perspective on life, a hopeful way ahead. To focus on God’s kingdom is to keep remembering and trusting that there is a God in heaven who knows us and who cares, a God to whom we may and also should call and pray daily, continuously. This God is one who today is still at work in history and has promised to answer us in some way, sooner or later – although we know, it does sometimes take a while.

In the past week I was myself put to shame in that my preoccupation with my own daunting responsibilities was met with an unexpected gift. I had become a bit overwhelmed, worrying about how we would manage all the different projects that the Centre has embarked on. It took so much of my energy and attention that I fretted like one without faith, with little trust even in prayer. And then unexpectedly, we received an answer in concrete, material terms. At times that is how it happens, some little sign is given, reminding us how important it is to keep the balance, to keep our attention in the right place. What a relief. What grace!

Carel Anthonissen

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