“Be not anxious.” It’s the title of a beautiful sermon by the German theologian Karl Barth. It’s also good advice. It’s hard to follow. When I am anxious I get sick. Sometimes people say, “Be well” at the end of their letters. It’s a little like saying “Be not anxious.” I want to say, “I don’t choose to be anxious. I don’t choose to be sick. Those things come upon you.” But I do choose: somewhere in the darker rooms of psyche and memory, when I have the time and temerity to venture in there, is a place of choice that offers a chance to take the way of sickness or the way of health. “Every choice we make,” a dear friend once said, as though it had just occurred to her, “takes us in the direction of life or the direction of death.” “Therefore choose life,” my favorite line in Deuteronomy, has come since that conversation to mean something much more ordinary—a daily practice—a criterion for even the small decisions. Which option allows for laughter? Which opens a quiet space of contentment in the midst of busyness? Which gives me what one poet called “the wish to be generous”?
Anxiety arises in the body—in my belly, along the right side of my neck, or on the old pathway of the vascular migraine. I can feel it beginning to throb. But now I know how submissive it is, like a child who really only wants attention, and doesn’t know how to get it if she doesn’t whine.
My girls laugh about how, when they were little, I would grab their chins, look them in the eye, and say with great clarity, “Don’t whine at me. You can say what you need and I will listen, but don’t whine.” I think those were fine mothering moments. I call upon that particular voice these days to address Anxiety. Anxiety is a whiner. Not quite so dignified as worry that seeks information, not as intelligent as informed concern—just whiny and irritating and relentless until I stop and look it in the eye and say, “Don’t whine. Say what you need.”
The need is often legitimate, and one about which I can be compassionate. I need help. I need rest. I need clarity to help me out of a thicket of confusion. Anxiety sharpens the need into suffering. Breathing slowly, asking questions, laughing at what is overwrought or at dithering prognostication, help, or reminding myself that, as Annie put it in her lovely poem, “every earthly darkness has given way to light thus far.”
I become anxious when I feel guilty. I become anxious when I have overcommitted. I become anxious when someone I love is angry, even when it’s not at me. And the guilt and the overcommitment and the fear of others’ anger or judgment or disappointment are never as big as they become when I see them through the cloudy lens of anxiety. They are manageable. Most things are manageable. I think it was Ambrose Bierce who wryly said, “Few things matter very much and most things don’t matter at all.” I wouldn’t adopt that as a general statement about life, but it has been useful. It puts me at a healthy distance. It makes me laugh. And laughter, I believe, is a reliable sign of spiritual health.