Anxiety and Death, Part 4
You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife…or anything that belongs to your neighbor. Exodus 20:17
When we are anxious, we are dead to the moment. We may be physically alive, but we are separated from what makes us a living, conscious being. That is because anxiety focuses our attention into the future or past. This is so common that many of us have forgotten what being in the moment even looks or feels like. We exist in a zombie-like state of non-presence. The tragedy is that all of the joy, all of the feeling, all of the life, and even the presence of God occurs only in the present moment. Everything else is a creation of memory or imagination, which will fluctuate between wonderful and awful, but it is not stable. We are often anxious because we do not trust the sufficiency of the moment to sustain us, when in fact the sufficiency of the moment is the only sufficiency that exists.
Of the multiple roots of anxiety, one of the most common has to do with comparing ourselves to others. On the one hand, we were created to compare. It is a basic function of our mind to distinguish one thing from another – this is safe, this is dangerous; this is hot, this is cold; this feels good, this hurts. Comparing is a useful and necessary function. Unfortunately, we tend to identify with our comparisons, and we inevitably judge ourselves inaccurately, harshly, and as being inferior to others. We feel inferior because our life does not seem as rich or blessed as that of another. Our tendency is to judge a small, positive slice of another’s life with a small, negative slice of our own. We feel victimized by injustice because another person appears to have life’s blessings come to them more easily than to us. Let me clarify that I am not referring to systemic and social injustices that really do benefit some at the expense of others. Rather, I am referring to those persons who are victimized more by their imagined injustices than by anything external to themselves.
Through television, movies, novels, and all forms of social media our expectations of ourselves, others, and of what a “normal” human life looks like have become unrealistic and unsustainable. It is not enough to have a home (for those of us who do). Our homes must be as big, as well-kept, as well-furnished, and in as nice a neighborhood as the nicest home of others in our circle of friends and family. It is the same for our cars. If our children are not as athletic or do not do as well in school as others we know, we feel we have failed as parents. Somehow, our expectations have risen to a level of perceived perfection, and we all fall far short. It feels sinful to fail. We can no longer receive criticism, even when it is constructive, well-intentioned, and respectful. We make certain our children get trophies for participation, which is not entirely negative, but does it teach our children that it is normal and acceptable to not always be first or to “win”? Does it imprint the message that our shortcomings are often our best teachers?
Coveting the accomplishments, possessions, and status of our neighbor is not new. Moses warned against it in the Ten Commandments written centuries before the birth of Jesus. From the earliest stories of creation, humankind’s desire for something forbidden, something missing, or something out of reach has run like an unbroken thread through our existence. And so it is with anxiety. Like forbidden or unfulfilled desire, the key is to redirect the object of our anxiety onto something that is present and available to us. That something is always contained in the present moment once we become attentive to it.
There is another facet of living an anxious life I wish to mention before closing this discussion. It has to do with holding earthly anxieties as we cross over into whatever lies beyond this life. I wonder if how we end this phase of our lives impacts how we enter the next, at least for a time. Granted, whatever lies beyond this life is a primary source of our anxiety in this life. Jesus, however, showed us how to die with equanimity, how to gently release this life and slip gracefully into the next. He forgave those who wronged him so he was carrying no grudges. He accepted his fate. He closed his affairs by leaving his mother in the care of his disciple, John. After that, there was nothing holding him here. And there was no anxiety. He was fully present, even in the moment of death.
This is the 46th in the series of Life Notes titled, If I Should Die Before I Wake. I invite your thoughts, insights, and feedback via email at firstname.lastname@example.org, 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.