“Ours is a time of anxiety, because we have willed it to be so. Our anxiety is not imposed on us by some force from outside.”
This seems like it could be a “tweet” or Facebook update just hours old… and yet, Cistercian monk and writer Thomas Merton wrote this in 1956 at the outset of the cold war.
Just a casual peek at the daily news or a short conversation at the office coffee pot is all it takes to get the feeling that things have not changed much since then-anxiety still floats in the air.
Anxiety-worry-concern-troubled; these are all descriptors of the same emotion we all know as FEAR…they are what I would call “Fear all dressed up”.
I have had a long history of struggles with fear and these related cousins. I remember as a child being on constant alert, feeling a “low-grade” anxiety running underneath like an unseen current. It was like being the first kid to check out if the iced-over pond was safe to skate on, and you get out half way, and hear the ice cracking underneath. I think I was born scared!
As I entered adulthood, I struggled with alcohol dependency until I sought help through a treatment center. The Psychologist spent thirty minutes assessing me, and his verdict was this:
“Irish Bob”, (his nickname for me), “FEAR has formed the backdrop of your life”.
Because of fear, I took less risks. Because of fear, I did not chase down my dreams. Because of fear, I was tense much of the time. Because of fear, I was not free to be of help and service to others.
I believed my anxiety was due to something “out there“, but I was to learn that my anxiety stemmed from how I perceived things–perceived myself and the outside world. What is going on in the outside world is nothing compared to the “What if’s” I could conjure up in my internal world.
Through my work with men in addiction, and observing friends, family, and co-workers, I have come to realize that today we are in the age of anxiety just as we were during the cold war. On the surface, the subject may be national politics, or cultural, gender, and racial divisions, or global threats – but underneath it all it comes down to how we perceive life in each passing moment.
If you struggle with worry, self-concern, free-floating anxieties, then the question becomes what can you do to eliminate or at least reduce these fears to manageable levels- to those levels that do not affect your behaviors, your choices, and your decisions.
I have learned that I will never be totally free of fear and its relatives, but there is a way to eliminate the most irrational ones, and put a damper on those that creep up unannounced. They do not keep me from doing the right thing or taking the risk to follow my hearts desires.
The good news is, if we accept that the predominance of our fears arise from within ourselves, we can radically change our lives by doing something different.
The not so good news – is it is not easy, and it takes a lifetime of practice.
But, here is more good news. With each right action, relief begins to come quickly.
Here are a few things I have learned and still practice:
- Most all of my worries and fears will not happen – there are no saber-tooth tigers crouching behind the bushes (Thank God!)
- All worry, anxiety, or fear is found when I am outside of the present moment-when I am living in the future, not in the present. Peace, serenity, contemplation – all are gifts of living fully in the present moment. Thich Nhat Hanh said “Fear keeps us focused on the past or worried about the future. If we can acknowledge our fear, we can realize that right now we are okay.”
- The answer to Fear is not bravery or courage or blind faith- but trust and reliance on a loving, caring, involved creator.
As the Gospel writer St. John wrote in his letter ;
“And so we know and rely on the love God has for us…There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment” (Jn. 4:16,18)
And as Bill Wilson, co-founder of alcoholics anonymous wrote;
“In my case, the foundation stone of freedom from fear is that of faith: a faith that, despite all worldly appearances to the contrary, causes me to believe that I live in a universe that makes sense. To me, this means a belief in a Creator who is all power, justice and love; a God who intends for me a purpose, a meaning, and a destiny to grow, however little and halting, toward His own likeness and image.” (Language of the heart– 1988)
Today, I try to remain aware of how I am feeling throughout my day, and recognize when anxiety, worry, or self-concern is present. This is not a pre-occupation with myself, but a kind of outside looking in – a periodic self- examine. For wherever there is anxiety, there is a drift away from trust, a drifting away from the innate knowledge that I and all those I love are being cared for in ways I could never myself.
My emotions are my spiritual barometer. Like the dashboard indicator lights on my car, they tell me immediately if I am drifting off center, away from that foundational place of trust and reliance in a loving God.
Here is a popular prayer of trust I say often and would recommend to you if you are trying to live a life that is not controlled or even influenced by fear.
“My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think that I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road though I may know nothing about it. Therefore will I trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.” Thomas Merton, Thoughts in Solitude, pg 89
After some time of practicing these principles and sitting with these prayers and thoughts, that thinly iced pond has become several feet thick, and I am no longer anxious about falling through.
- How does fear, anxiety, self-concern get in your way?
- What have you found to be helpful in eliminating or at least reducing your “Fear Level” to a non-consequential level?
- What is your “spiritual barometer” telling you right now? It is your indicator that something needs changing or adjusting.
- I would love to hear from you and learn from you as well.