Buses and Anxieties
There are some old sayings about the ways in which misfortune visits us. Like late buses, problems tend to come in bunches, we have been told. Another version says that bad things come in threes, which is usually really unnerving if you’ve just been visited by two so far.
I’ve been thinking about this recently standing at a metaphorical bus stop of my own as three late and unwanted buses pulled up in a little bunch. None of the buses carried catastrophic misfortune, but each had its own causes for anxiety.
Among the extraordinarily wise things our Lord said, one of the wisest had to do with anxiety. He talked about anxiety a good deal, always with gentleness and good humor. I have a feeling that Jesus had several occasions to talk to people about their fears.
He said. Don’t waste your energy on anxiety. Can you by worrying add even an inch to your height?
Consider the beauty of those wild flowers that carpet the fields in spring time. They don’t scurry around in a tizzy. They don’t fret over the colors of their blooms. And yet the richest king in all history couldn’t have dressed up in clothes as gorgeous as their blossoms are.
Don’t worry about what may or may not happen tomorrow. Each day has quite enough trouble in it for that day.
I have a habit often of waking up sometime between 1:30 and 2:30 in the morning. These days I roll back over and go back to sleep. But there was a time when I had the devil of a time going back to sleep whenever that happened.
My eyes used to lock on that little digital clock by my bed. It’s little red numbers glowed in the dark reading, “1:45” and before I could turn over and drift back into sleep, a thought would slip into my consciousness:
What did that trustee mean when he said what he did? Then I would rehearse the comment again and again, playing it over and over and over, each time with just a little more concern. Do they think I’m not doing a good job?
Through a tiny gap all my self-doubt would come tumbling through, and, like circus acrobats, one self-doubt would stand precariously on the shoulders of another.
I would lie there with fretful thoughts whizzing through my brain: Maybe I’m not up to this job. Maybe I could squeeze another hour or two out of the day and that would help. If I don’t succeed with this, everyone will think I’m useless. No. Everyone will finally know I am useless. I’ll be a failure. No one will like me.
General William Tecumseh Sherman once said of General Ulysses S. Grant that he was the only commander he had ever known who had “three o’clock in the morning kind of courage.” It is, in my experience, the toughest courage to come by. But we don’t get it simply by using good (and there are good) relaxation techniques. This kind of courage requires a genuine, deeply-felt philosophy of life.
Which is why Jesus’ words mean so much.
Jesus knew his value did not depend upon earthly success or the esteem of others. In the view of virtually everyone who mattered in his society, including some very close to him, he was a complete failure. In the estimation of the world he died in shame. And the truly shocking lesson of the resurrection is not that God reversed his failure and erased his shame, it is that God endorsed his way of living that culminated in both.
I love ancient Stoic thought. But not even Stoicism goes this deep. I’ve learned a lot from Asian philosophy and psychology, but there is no wisdom and no psychology in the whole sacred world that so clearly goes to the heart of the human struggle as does the way of Jesus.
The late Jewish scholar, Rabbi Ellis Rivkin, said of Jesus on the cross, that he represented the pinnacle of Jewish wisdom and faith. Why? Because Jesus lived the truth that the only judgment upon our humanity is God’s. And God’s judgment is love.
It is said that when the great Winston S. Churchill awoke in the middle of the night, the worries of political foes swirling about in his head, he’d mutter into his pillow, “Bugger em!” Then he’d turn over and go back to sleep. But even Churchill worried, his “Black Dog Depression” hounding him his entire life, his fear of failing, especially his fear of not living up to his father and mother’s expectations, pressed down upon him.
It has been said that the greatest wisdom in the world comes from learning what to let go of, and what to retain. It has also been said that the ultimate sacred path inevitably leads us to understand that it is in the letting go that we are made free. What, then, do we need to let go of so that we can get the rest we need to face the challenges of the coming day?
If my worth hangs on my achievements or on the esteem of others, however much I may wish to possess both, then it hangs on chance more than anything else, it depends on the shifting sands of external changes that no one can control. But if my worth hangs on the conviction that “I belong in life and in death not to myself but to my faithful savior Jesus Christ” (to quote the Heidelberg Catechism), and that it is God alone who pronounces judgment on my life then nothing in this life need I fear.
Ultimately, this kind of philosophy isn’t learned from books alone, of course. It tends to enter into our bones gradually through the rough tutor of life.