Anxiety and Death

Anxiety and Death

And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? Matthew 6:27

Anxiety is rampant today. As I write this, we are five months into the COVID-19 pandemic in the United States, which has increased the general levels of anxiety, but our anxiety pandemic began long before COVID. In the last generation or so, anxiety has become a pandemic of its own, as have the related issues of intestinal dysfunction and suicide. In the context of this series of reflections about death and dying, anxiety has always been high around death, and the present time is no exception.

Anxiety is an issue of out-of-the-present-momentness. I do not mean to downplay the seriousness of anxiety. A number of people I dearly love suffer from it, but there is seldom anything to be anxious about in the present moment. In other words, when we are fully immersed into the now, there is usually little cause for worry. Our worries originate in the shame and embarrassment we retain from our interpretations of past events and/or about something that may or may not happen in the future. In that sense, anxiety is a triple-whammy to us. First, we have the mental and physical health issues brought on by worry. Second, there are numerous losses that result from being out of the moment. Finally and contrary to experience, we exhibit a distinct lack of faith that whatever we need in any given moment will be provided to us.

Two-thousand years ago, Jesus commented on worry, asking if any of us could add a single hour to our lives by worrying. The question was rhetorical, but the implied answer was “No, we cannot.” In the 1980s, First Lady Nancy Reagan introduced the well-intentioned, but ultimately ineffective anti-drug slogan of “Just say No!” Anxious people know well that letting go of anxious thoughts is not as simple as saying, “No.” Anxiety can become an addictive and habitual behavior that often requires professional assistance to manage.

A common focus of anxiety is the past. We regret something we did or did not say or do, and we seem unable to get beyond our very personal and present sense of inadequacy or shame. We know we cannot change the past, but we often overlook that we can change our interpretation of it, not to mention the impact it has on our present. We can reframe our past hurts in ways that allow us to move beyond them, accept ourselves as flawed beings (like everyone else), and free ourselves to move more fully into our present moments. We can affirm that we are worthy and deserving of love just the way we are, embarrassing warts and all.

The other common focus of anxiety is the future. We may be on a picnic with one we love beside a beautiful, clear lake on a flawless day, yet all we can think about is the pending result of the test we had at the doctor’s office this morning. Again, in the wise words of Jesus, “…do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today” (Matthew 6:34). There is nothing good that can come from worrying about something that may or may not happen in the next moment. All the good, all the beauty, all the life is in the now – right here, right now.

Author and teacher Tilden Edwards, in his book Living in the Presence, writes, “When we are fully present in the flow of the moment, time and eternity have a way of collapsing into one another: eternity is sensed as the depth, the fullness of time.”[1] Time does not simply pass; time accumulates. The past is present with us in the now, as are our projections about possible futures. When we carry inaccurate and hurtful interpretations of the past into our present and then add pessimistic visions of the future, we create a fullness of time that more resembles a millstone around our necks than the rich and beautiful tapestry that should characterize such fullness.

The physical and mental toll of prolonged anxiety is significant and well-known. There is also a sense, however, in which anxiety is its own dying process in that it causes us to die to or lose the present moment and the unexperienced blessings therein. We cannot enter into, nor fully experience the amazing moments of our lives when our anxiety refocuses our attention to the past or the future. Instead, we die a death by a thousand paper cuts, in the words of an old proverb.

This is the 43rd in the series of Life Notes titled, If I Should Die Before I Wake. I invite your thoughts, insights, and feedback via email at ghildenbrand@sunflower.com, or through my website, www.ContemplatingGrace.com. At the website, you can also sign up to have these reflections delivered to your Inbox every Thursday morning, if you are not receiving them in another manner.

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[1] Tilden Edwards, Living in the Presence. Harper One, 1987, p. 26.

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