Is it possible, really, not to worry? Australian people often say ‘No worries’. I have noticed that this is one of the expressions that people from other cultures pick up, really quickly, as they live here. ‘No worries’.
The basic assumption of our culture is that we are much better off if we don’t worry or have no worries. And this also has overtones in the area of spirituality and faith. There is a presumption that if we have sufficient faith, or if we practice our faith properly, we will have no worries.
Jesus spoke about this, in a section of the Sermon on the Mount, recorded in Matthew 6: ‘And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life.'(v. 27)
He added various other questions along the same lines, and contrasts our anxieties with the utterly unselfconscious joy and beauty of birds and flowers. The challenge that follows is to ‘seek, first of all, God’s kingdom’ and all the other things will be provided or attended to. Presumably, ‘no worries’.
Seriously though, what good does it do when someone says to us, ‘Don’t worry’ or ‘Don’t be anxious.’
But just being told not to be anxious is not going to relieve our anxiety. Sometimes it can even annoy us, if it makes us feel that the speaker just doesn’t take seriously our concern. It might make us feel even worse!
It is more helpful to try to understand what anxiety is, or what it means when we are worried.
Anxiety can be a very helpful pointer, in our lives, to something that is important for us to deal with. We may be worried about what might happen: and that reflects first of all that there things we value, and want to protect. There are also uncertainties, or dangers, which we need to evaluate and perhaps address. And then, also, this anxiety reflects our sense of not being in control. There are many things we can’t manage, can’t control: and sometimes that can cause deep anxiety or fear.
All these elements are part of ‘worrying’.
And in behind all that is the question of whether we should even expect to be able to manage these things. Sometimes people have a completely inappropriate sense that they (or someone else) ought to be able to predict, manage and control all that is going to happen.
This presumption is, I think, deeply pervasive in our technological world. We think, perhaps without realising it, that since we do have pills for many diseases, there should be a pill for every disease. Since we can manage some floods of water, then whenever a big flood does occur someone has failed to predict it and control it. We look for someone to blame.
We have lost the sense of an unpredictable and indeed ‘wild’ natural world.
When we are anxious, that might be because we have gained a genuine and realistic awareness of the insecurity and unpredictability of life. As the philosophers say, there is facticity in our existence. It could all be otherwise, and often it is. The unexpected happens. We are not managers of the universe. Life is not all under control: certainly not under our control.
Anxiety can be inappropriate, but can also be a helpful pointer to the truth and reality of our situation. In many circumstances it is helpful and healthy to be anxious. Sometimes that anxiety prompts immediate action to protect ourselves or those with us, to move away from danger for example.
So if it is not helpful to say, ‘Don’t be anxious’, or ‘Don’t worry’, what can we do?
I think there are some constructive things we can say here.
First, it is always helpful to acknowledge and recognize the reality. Here there is a helpful process called ‘self-talk’. We can talk to ourselves, saying something like: ‘OK, so you are feeling very frightened right now. XYZ seems to be a serious concern. But it hasn’t happened yet, and maybe it won’t. The thing to do now is …’ and here we might say something like, ‘Call Judy and ask her to come and pick you up’, or ‘Take a few deep breaths, before going back into that horrible situation’, or ‘Try not to lose your cool, but instead speak quietly and rationally until this person settles down a bit.’
It is worth naming the fact that we are anxious. I read some time ago the statement of the great mystic Thomas Merton:
‘God does not ask us not to feel anxious but to trust in him no matter how we feel.’
I remember that when I first read that it gave me a sense of permission to be honest about the way I did feel. God does not ask us to pretend. We are not required to deny our feelings. What we are invited to do is to work with the reality of our concerns, our feelings, and in this way to do something with them and about them.
The sermon of Jesus we quoted above does just this. He invites people to move beyond their worries to another perspective. The ‘kingdom of God’ is not about the absence of all trouble. The life of Jesus suggests the opposite! But what he means is that there is another perspective, from which we can stare down those worries and reduce their power. We do not have to be immobilized by our fears and anxieties, our wishes for some other reality. There are many things we can’t change, but we can change the way we live with them.
In another famous passage, Jesus says to his followers, ‘Let not your hearts be troubled’ (John 14. 1). This might also be translated ‘anxious’. In effect, ‘don’t let anxiety overtake you.’ The saying goes on to urge what to do instead: ‘Believe in God, believe also in me’. This idea of ‘believe’ is not so much about ideas to believe in our heads, it’s about an attitude of trust. Trust in God, that’s what Jesus is urging. And he goes on to give some interesting substance to what this might mean, by speaking about ‘his father’s house’ as a place of many rooms or ‘dwelling places’, and then asserts that he is going to prepare such a place for his followers.
A place to be: this is the antidote to anxious hearts. It’s about being at home, and I think this is immensely important to understand. The place to be is not an escape from anxieties and worries: it is the same place, but now lived in, in a different way. In the context of fears, uncertainties, the threat of death or ill-health or so many other things, Jesus says we can live with God. In God’s ‘house’, which is literally all reality, we can be at home. We can be in the presence of God, in the heavenly reality, or we can be far away from it and consumed by anxiety and fear. Mostly we hover between, unsure altogether what is going on.
Jesus does not promise us escape from the world, nor an end to ‘worries’. He invites us to learn to live with our anxieties, in a faithful way, in this present ‘room’ of his father’s house.