Living in the Age of Anxiety


the_scream“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:

  1.  Most all of my worries and fears will not happen – there are no saber-tooth tigers crouching behind the bushes (Thank God!)
  2.  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.”
  3. 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.

Kind Regards,



15 Responses

  1. Rita Keough

    June 4, 2016 3:57 pm

    Thich Nhat Hanh reminds us that the miracle is not to walk on water, but to walk the green earth in the present time.

  2. Elizabeth

    May 21, 2016 4:56 pm

    My earliest fears were those of being in a new classroom, not on the ice. It was nearly paralyzing. It took being a parent to get over that.

    Holding on to my fear is what I thought responsibility was. To let go of fears was to be carefree and irresponsible. I saw worry and fear as part of being accountable. I still do, but I am working on it. I’m finding it’s a lifelong process.

    • Bob Toohey

      May 21, 2016 5:42 pm

      I had that same fear my freshman year of college. I like your spin on the relationship between concern and responsibility. As long as I can remind myself when I am there to trust.

      • Elizabeth Crow

        May 22, 2016 1:41 am

        Just to clarify, the classrooms I referred to are the ones from our many moves. New schools were terrifying for this shy sister. Now I’m in and out all day – no biggie!

  3. Mark Owen

    May 21, 2016 2:08 pm

    Hi Bob, Great read! The feeling of walking on thin ice is one I was well acquainted with for most of my life. What a great word picture! It wasn’t so much I was afraid and anxious, it was that I let those fears and worries define me. Today, to the best of my ability I trust God to walk with me and before me, knowing that His plans are so much greater than any I might conjure up. My prayer is for Faith to define me not fear. Thanks and I love the blog.

    • Bob Toohey

      May 21, 2016 2:54 pm

      Thank you Mark -I was hoping to hear from you. You nailed it – to pray that our fears to not define us or sway us away from doing His will at any given moment..

  4. Jim

    May 19, 2016 11:08 pm

    Its like you read my mind! You appear to understand so
    much about this, like you wrote the e-book in it or something.
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  5. Martha

    May 19, 2016 5:46 pm

    Bob, thank you for sharing. Yes, I do have my fears. I just need to keep reading your blog over and over as a reminder on how to chase them away.

  6. Max Heine

    May 19, 2016 5:15 pm

    For some who suffer from anxiety, it’s a matter of control. They have an unrealistic desire to control circumstances or people, and that can’t help but produce frustration and anxiety. All the more reason, as you point out, to trust a higher authority.

    • BobT

      May 19, 2016 5:29 pm

      Thanks Max: I fully agree that a need or wish to control everything within our experience is a chief driver of fear in all its forms.

  7. Mike Hoag

    May 19, 2016 5:00 pm

    Bob, Thank you for sharing these reflections, the messages resonate with my experience and passion. I hope at some point to contribute to the thread. The Merton prayer is my daily prayer, not so much as bracing against fear but a reminder that God loves me even in the midst of all the silly things I do and decisions I make and in my stumbles and falls, like you I find myself Falling Forward a theme I that is, I believe the story of Gods creation and our part in that creation. Peace.

    • BobT

      May 19, 2016 5:25 pm

      Mike: Thanks for your comment, and I hope you do continue to contribute your own experience of “falling forward” into this abundant and wondrous life.


I welcome your response and comments