MFA alumna Laura Turner: How to live with anxiety in a chaotic world
There was a New York Times headline in the fall of 2017 that I saw everywhere but couldn’t bring myself to click on:
I was newly pregnant after three miscarriages in a year, and felt ill every time I thought of the woman who told her story to a reporter. The incredible, seemingly incurable evil of the world that we live in was overwhelming.
Even for those of us with relatively safe lives, news brings the world’s atrocities close to home every day. Thus, it is not surprising that anxiety is a more and more commonly diagnosed and talked-about disorder. The Anxiety and Depression Association of America estimates that 40 million adults — nearly 20 percent of the population — live with an anxiety disorder. Anxiety can seem like the only way to respond to a world filled with chaos and disaster. How can we take Jesus seriously when he tells us not to worry?
I confess that, for me — a lifelong anxiety sufferer — the idea of not worrying is as foreign as the idea of not breathing.
I confess that, for me — a lifelong anxiety sufferer — the idea of not worrying is as foreign as the idea of not breathing. I’m not sure how I would exist without it, not because I particularly like it, but because it makes up so much of my conscious experience of the world. I worry, therefore I am.
Jesus, on the other hand, didn’t seem to worry much. In fact, he was always telling other people not to worry, which I find quite annoying. “Do not worry about tomorrow,” he told the crowd gathered for the Sermon on the Mount, “for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.” And again, in John 14: “Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.” In Luke 12, he admonishes the crowd not to worry about what they will eat, about their bodies, or even about their lives.
How could it be anything but cruel to tell the Royingya mother in Myanmar that Jesus, a man who lived thousands of years ago in a place very far from her home, told her not to worry? That she had nothing to fear, because God was with her? How do we tell that to parents in America who worry about their children dying at the hands of law enforcement because of the color of their skin? How do we tell that to families fleeing violence in Central America, only to be split up at the border? For people who face real, devastating circumstances, how is it anything but arrogance to encourage them not to worry?
For people who face real, devastating circumstances, how is it anything but arrogance to encourage them not to worry?
And yet, if we are to take Jesus seriously, we must grapple with the gospel he preaches. We talk a lot in the Christian faith about compassion, but one of the best responses to anxiety can be found in another, less-used com– word: comfort.
It wasn’t until the 18th century that the word comfort came to mean something like “relative ease” or “domestic peace.” The word has its roots in the Latin com-, or “together,” and fortis, or “strong.” Another definition might have been “to strengthen much.” The promise of comfort was a promise of power — strength to hold together.
Nowadays, we use “comfort” to describe a state of being at ease — you might find comfort in the interior seats of a new car, or a plush mattress, or a new bedroom set. “Comfort” is almost always used to sell you something, put you at the center of a world without pain. In his book Home: A Short History of an Idea, Witold Rybczynski describes the pinnacle of comfort promised by a glossy advertisement: If you only purchase and use the materials featured in the ad, you can join that world of ease.
This kind of comfort is vacuous but appealing. I have often thought that if I could just get comfortable enough, sleep long enough, wrap myself up and protect myself from the world, I would be free from worry. There is a kind of hermetic comfort that comes from total withdrawal from the world: If I just had enough stuff, and if it was soft and cozy and comfortable enough, perhaps I would be at peace. If I surround myself with the familiar, I will have comfort.
But there is another kind of comfort that is softer and sweeter still than a duvet or a year of sleep. It is more complicated, and less tangible. This kind of comfort has much to do with togetherness — the com– part of comfort. It is a comfort that has as its foundation the fact that we are truly never alone.
The assurance that someone is with me when I feel alone is a source of strength.
Sometimes that looks like being part of a community of believers — worshiping together and providing care for other people in a way that takes me out of my small-minded anxieties. Often, though, the “together” of this comfort is the reminder that even when I feel most afraid, small, and alone, I am never actually completely alone. I am never without the companionable power of the Holy Spirit. In a culture that prizes the wrong kind of independence and encourages isolation through the use of technology and the prizing of perfectionism, this kind of comfort — the assurance that someone is with me when I feel alone — is a source of strength.
This is comfort as it was originally written. It is strength through God’s presence and consolation. It is the knowledge that our God suffers with us, and that Jesus suffered as well. Our suffering is always shared. This is the rest that Isaiah 40 speaks of: not escape, but strength in suffering. God feeds his flock like a shepherd and carries us close to his heart.
This comfort is the only antidote to anxiety that has worked for me. It is a comfort that tells a new story about our relationship to time. We don’t have to be in a hurry to make everything OK, because everything is being made OK, over years and decades and millennia, in ways we cannot see.
We are alive with God in eternity even now, and God mourns with us as we face devastation, fear, isolation, and pain. There is no easy answer to the question of suffering, and as long as there is suffering, there will be worry. Jesus knew that, which is why he spoke so often to the human tendency to worry. We are afraid. That is OK. We will be comforted.
This story originally appeared on pages 29–31 of the autumn 2018 issue of Response with the headline, “Looking for comfort in chaos.” Art by Seth Nickerson.