On Anxiety

I have struggled lived with anxiety since childhood. I regularly wake up in the morning, worrying, “IS EVERYONE OKAY???” I worry, daily, about anything that is fundamentally unknowable or unpredictable, which is to say, nearly everything.

Anxiety isn’t purely unpleasant. It motivates me to some extent. My type A mentality means that I earn the favor of my professors. I show up to every meeting early. I check three times to make sure my rent payment goes through each month. This mentality also means that during finals week Jack knows he will find me crying from stress in front of my laptop at least once, saying despite over 20 years of evidence to the contrary, this will certainly be the semester that the other shoe drops and I fail a course.

My anxiety is my defense against this world that I fundamentally do not understand. It is the armor I’ve always chosen to protect myself from cruelty and surprise. My anxiety armor has me convinced that if I worry enough, I’ll be safe.

Living in Manhattan has only bolstered the trance of defense in me. The city seems to whisper to its inhabitants, walk faster, speak louder, don’t take deep breaths, refuse anything asked of you. Increasingly, though, the world seems to demand the same defended posture and anxiety of us, as well. There is so much to worry about: the fate of the planet, our fascist government, more school shootings, social decay, famine and conflict, the refugee crisis, violence around the corner and in the far corners of the Middle East.

The morning after the November 2016 election, I awoke after having had only two hours of sleep and deep panic set in. I thought, will I ever wake up with a peaceful heart during this presidency? Not worrying, now, appears like complacency. If we’re not worrying, we’re either deluded or complacent. At least, for me, my anxiety has become part of the battle cry. In the midst of the busyness of life, at the very least, I am worrying about climate change and the preservation of democracy and children in refugee camps. As our understanding of the world as grown, the scope of our human responsibility has grown, too. It now spans the globe. If we know about the famine in Yemen or the entangled cruelty of mass incarceration, we are implicated in those people’s ongoing suffering. We must contribute and continue to pay attention.

Recently I realized that attention and anxiety are not equivalent. Anxiety, thanks to the dramatic stylings of my imagination, pulls my attention far beyond me. Attention, however, is tethered to the present. Attention is discernment. Attention carefully weighs what is true, what is resonant, what is beautiful or horrifying, blessed or unjust. Attention notes the feel, the weight, the dimensions of things. The mass media – our window onto the world – does not understand the difference between paying attention and sparking anxiety. They play endless loops of footage of suffering. They react immediately to catastrophe or destruction, violence or loss, giving information more importance than wisdom.

Collectively and individually, we can engage or we can check out. We can medicate or numb or distract ourselves from the world’s pain, from our own pain. But if we all choose a numb existence, then what are we all doing here? So many of us choose to spend our time missing the essential because we are too afraid of experience itself, and we miss the beauty and preciousness stitched through life. Experience offers joy and connection but requires pain and participation. Anxiety is a sort of participation, a method of engagement. Anxiety is a sign that we are sensitized to life. But in all truth, worry does not heal the world.

So often worry wakes me up and I armor up: WHAT DO I HAVE TO DEFEND AGAINST?? It engenders hypervigilance and harshness in me, and does the world need more hyper vigilant, edgy, defended people? No! The world needs more wise, soft, gracious, conscious people.

What would replace my defensiveness and fear? Gratitude and love would fill the space defensiveness and anxiety leave. Anxiety carries me places, but gratitude tethers me, plants me, where I actually am. There is so much richness within life itself. If I woke up soft, like a child, I would see that my life is awash in grace.

Conscious participation – what us Christians might call agape love – has the potential to heal individuals and society. For me this practice will begin in the flush of a new day.  Instead of panicking (a practice at which I am truly skilled) and choosing armor, I will choose softness and love. Instead of thinking, what more is there to fear? I pray, Here I am. And my God, I am thankful.