Worry may be the signature human condition, and its attendant anxiety the characteristic mark of our time. Current estimates reveal well over 12 percent of the American population suffer from some form of debilitating anxiety. Considering the current economic crisis, perhaps we might wonder why more don’t suffer from it.
After all, too many people – intelligent, skillful people – are out of work, money and viable options to care for themselves and their families. “Lack” is a dominant word in our culture and is cause for tremendous and justifiable worry. College, once an expectation, is becoming an impossible dream of America’s youth. But they can’t find jobs either. And then there is the despair that accompanies these concerns, which taxes the budget even more because it gives rise to medical problems – problems that increase anxiety exponentially due to the current state of our healthcare system.
In today’s gospel, Jesus admonishes us not to worry about our life. How does that help? Doesn’t reading these words heap guilt on we who are worried for worrying? Aren’t Jesus’ words the romantic musings of a young idealist, insensitive to the poor, the unemployed and especially to the worrywarts? At first glance, his advice does not seem very practical or doable.
Or does it?
Protestant theologian Paul Tillich characterized the most predominant modern anxiety as spiritual; that is, we suffer from emptiness or meaninglessness. If Tillich is the diagnostician, then perhaps the Jesuit theologian Anthony de Mello, following Jesus’ advice, offers the cure. De Mello said, “You sanctify whatever you are grateful for.” In other words, instead of nursing our worries, change the focus. Look elsewhere, beyond self-absorption. Cultivate a grateful heart.
The ease of this cure is what makes it seem unrealistic. Do you remember the Old Testament story of Naaman, the commander of the army of the king of Aram, found in Second Kings? He sought out the prophet Elisha to heal him of his leprosy but when Elisha instructed Naaman to wash in the Jordan seven times, Naaman became angry. The cure was too easy! When at last Naaman followed Elisha’s instructions, his flesh was restored to that of a young man.
Or take the example of Dennis, who was down on his luck. First, he was injured, and then he got sick and had to cancel a long-awaited trip. Feeling anxious over the poor state of his body compounded his illness and annoyed his family members. Dennis, consumed in his black cloud, almost canceled his weekly ministry at the local retirement home but instead he forced himself to go. He felt awful when he began reaching out to the first broken-down senior who approached him. And then, by the end of that first encounter, Dennis felt refreshed. Filled with gratitude, his symptoms vanished during his time of ministry.
Gratitude does not come easily, especially when we are caught in the grip of anxiety. Nor does gratitude come in a sudden conversion. It comes through a slow turning away from worry by intentionally stopping to find something, anything, for which to thank God. In the midst of worry, it can be a real stretch. Jesus understood this. Take something simple and common, Jesus says, for which to give thanks: a bird, a flower, a blade of grass. Anything will do: a breath of air, a dog’s loyalty, a glass of water. It is the small step of moving out of self to notice something or someone beyond the self that matters.
This small step leads to huge results. It leads to finally getting what Jesus is trying to tell us: everything is God’s, and God is eagerly waiting to give us more and more – if only we would allow it. Jesus wants us to notice what is in front of us, to believe that God is present and to be thankful. Change the subject, Jesus admonishes. There is a lot of stuff in life we are powerless to change, but changing the subject is always in our power.
Another way to think about this is to imagine two buckets. Bucket one contains those things over which we have control; the other, bucket two, contains things we cannot control. Now imagine yourself confronted with an intractable problem, some elements of which are in bucket one, some in bucket two. Where are you going to spend your time?
Alcoholics Anonymous was founded on the premise that alcoholics are powerless over alcohol – bucket two – but that there are steps that can be taken, such as making a personal inventory – bucket one. By changing the subject from the self lost in the big picture to the small picture just in front of, yet beyond the self, results happen.
Of course, the contents of the buckets are not static; things heretofore outside your control may move under your influence. Still, bucket one is the place to focus, and it is here efforts may bring results, alleviating worry. In addition, sheer activity in bucket one, regardless of results, is a great worry quencher, because you can’t worry when you’re busy. Depressed? Get off your duff and do something, the dictum goes. Jesus adds, notice what is in front of you.
Consider the story of David Scholer, the late New Testament professor at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California. He suffered from asthma, diabetes, arthritis and was diagnosed with incurable colorectal cancer in 2002, which subsequently spread to both lungs. Yet in spite of all of this, he survived beyond the expectations of his doctors, maintained a global ministry through electronic and paper correspondence, and remained one of the most popular professors on campus.
Although Scholer’s body did not heal, nor did he expect it to, his illness taught him to be thankful for his family and friends, the people he met along the way, the energy to do the things he enjoyed, and most of all for being alive. Scholer knew his disease was bucket two. Gratitude for people and for being alive was bucket one. By focusing on bucket one, Scholer’s tears were transformed into “shouts of joy,” as we read in Psalm 126 today.
The Serenity Prayer, penned by theologian Reinhold Niebuhr and adopted by Alcoholics Anonymous, sums up the bucket theory:
God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.
By adopting gratitude, we can discover God’s abundance. It’s a funny thing, but gratitude takes math out of the equation. When gratitude replaces anxiety, even when we find we have less than we had during our worry days, gratitude reveals that we have far more than we need.
Look at the birds of the air, consider the lilies of the field. Jesus wasn’t being idealistic; he was being practical. Medical science has shown that by not worrying, we can add to our life span. We don’t have to worry about our lives day to day – what we are going to eat or drink or wear? Nor do we have to worry about our children’s needs. All we have to do is say thank you, knowing that what needs to happen will, and the rest is not all that important. Gratitude is the secret.
— barbara baumgarten is a visual artist and author. David Catron is a linguist and writer. Currently, barbara and David are partners in mission with the Igreja Episcopal Anglicana do Brasil (IEAB).