Why Are We So Anxious? Pt. 1

Sep 08, 2020

Even before the entrance of COVID-19, anxiety levels were skyrocketing in our nation. On the face of it, this seems odd as, relatively speaking, we live in an age of unprecedented wealth, convenience, and connectivity. So, what’s wrong with us? In this three-part series, we’ll consider anxiety by examining three major illusions of our age: 1) We’re in control 2) We’re invincible 3) We’re immortal. In this first episode, we consider the modern illusion that we're in control.

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Cameron McAllister: Hello, and welcome to the Vital Signs podcast. I'm your host, Cameron McAllister. Thank you so much for tuning in today. We're going to begin a series on anxiety. Can't imagine why on earth I would start a series on anxiety, especially in these times, but even before, of course, all of the major and drastic changes that we've seen as a result of the pandemic, even before that ours is definitely an age of anxiety. This is a persistent problem.

And I've pointed out that it's odd before on this podcast. It's odd because when you look at North American culture, for instance, we're enjoying a time of relative stability and comfort and wealth, and yet depression levels are very high. Anxiety is extremely high. So on the face of it, that looks really odd. It seems to indicate that all is not well. That if you look below the surface, if you peer under the hood, so to speak, there is something that's not functioning properly, something's broken.

And so I actually, as a Christian here, I'm going to go ahead and put some cards on the table real quickly from the onset. And I'm going to say, I don't think that it's really that odd. And I think if you look at the assumptions that are characteristic of our age, I think that you would expect to find very high levels of anxiety.

And so I'm going to spend the rest of the series explaining and trying to show why I think that's the case, but our thoughts are going to be guided by a set of verses in the book of James, in James chapter four, which these are actually fairly well known verses. The book of James is short, sweet, very practical, and actually quite sharp. So maybe it's not so sweet. Maybe it's short, sharp, and practical.

It's kind of a book of almost wisdom literature, really a book about how we should live, how you live well and how you really flourish as a person, and James really doesn't mince words. And he has some very strong words to say on the topic of worry and anxiety. Now, he doesn't directly use those words, but I think you'll see how they apply. Before I read those verses, let me give you the format here.

We're going to look at anxiety really under three broad headings, three illusions. There are three powerful illusions that make our chronic anxiety possible and they are control, the illusion of control. Two, invincibility. The illusion of invincibility. And finally, this is going to sound the oddest of all, the illusion of immortality. What on earth do I mean by that? Do we really think that we're immortal or do we all think that we're zombies or vampires or something?

I know it sounds a little outlandish initially, but as we get to that episode, I'll explain a little bit more about how I think we often have been able to sustain a pretty elaborate illusion about the fact that we're actually not going to die. And I'm also going to say, just to pique your interest, I'm also going to say that we're halfway right about that, by the way.

If Christianity is true, our souls are immortal. And if Christianity is true, death doesn't have the final say over anybody. So we're halfway right about that. But I also want to say that part of what is bringing all of this to a head right now is the way the pandemic has been received by us. I don't want to say directly that it's the pandemic that's doing it, COVID-19. Why do I not want to say that?

Well, this is not the first pandemic. We're acting in many ways as though this is so incredibly novel. It isn't, and it's not going to be the last pandemic either. What is interesting is the way it has fundamentally disrupted the globe. For years and years to come, presumably, not just scientists, but historians, philosophers, and sociologists are going to be disentangling all of the confusion that really has ensued in the wake of this pandemic.

And one of the factors here that I think is really powerful is that this pandemic has made our vulnerability, our mortality, and our lack of control much harder to deny. It's made those facts, in some ways it's made them a little bit unavoidable. And so that's why I think there's a special urgency to this topic right now. And I also want to add a quick qualifier.

I am not pretending to solve all of the complexities and difficulties that basically attend mental illness and chronic anxiety. That's not directly what I'm speaking into here, though I do think that, that also is a symptom of our age, and I do think it has its roots in some of our misguided assumptions. But all that to say those who are afflicted with serious and chronic anxiety, there are real complications there and they do demand help from professionals as well.

And so I'm not pretending to stand in the gap there. What I am doing is, I want to look at some of the lines of thinking, the misguided lines of thinking that have nourished this anxiety and look at how we can respond to it and really how we can recover from it. But let's think about these verses. I'll read them at the beginning of each episode, but these come at the end of James 4:13, we read these words.

"Come now you who say today or tomorrow, we will go into such and such a town and spend a year there and trade and make a profit, yet you do not know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life, for you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes. Instead, you ought to say if the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that as it is, you boast in your arrogance, all such boasting is evil. So whoever knows the right thing to do and fails to do it, for him it is a sin."

Now I told you, James doesn't mince words here, and it's pretty interesting. These verses have come to mind so often as I've looked at the headlines or on days where I've decided to take the day off from the news. Every now and then you should fast from the news, by the way. You'll be amazed what that'll do for your mood. But as I've thought about that, because I remember just before, as you do [inaudible 00:07:23] , with not long ago, just before everything really ramped up, I remember lots of conversations with people just in different places, whether it was at work or in an airport or over-hearing various conversations about just the bustling state of America.

I kept hearing people say, well, the economy is just booming. Everything is going so well. And there was just this kind of optimism in the air. You often get this, by the way, at the beginning of a new year. Also, this is where you're going to hear a lot of plans, right? And a lot of kind of boasting plans about, "Well, this year, I'm going to really seize the day and I'm going to work out and I'm going to improve. I'm going to make changes, blah, blah, blah."

And there was a lot of that. And then all of a sudden it was nearly instantly all of these plans were dismantled on a global scale. And it brought to mind once again, these verses where you see that behind the attitude, that boastful attitude, which James calls evil, he goes really far here. And we're going to talk about in this specific episode about why that would be evil.

You just see the strong sense of presumption in these kinds of boasts, in these kinds of predictions, the presumption that you are in control. So here's one of the really powerful illusions of our day. Here's the first illusion I want to talk about. The notion that human beings are rational, men and women in control of their destiny. Now you don't have to articulate that thought to have internalized it. I'll say that again. You don't have to articulate that thought to have internalized it.

And the notion that we are rational, men and women, in control of our own destinies is deeply internalized on a national level. So many of us, you don't really have try to think in these terms. This is what you will drift into, unless you are intentionally getting a reality check. Now it's easy to avoid reality checks usually. Under the usual circumstances, you can find ways to distract yourself.

You can hide behind entertainment, you can hide behind hobbies and busy-ness, you can hide behind your work. But when something like this happens, of course, a pandemic or something like this, especially when there's been a response like this, it becomes harder to avoid. And one of the deeply revealing aspects of our response is that you see so much anger and resentment and confusion. I find it really interesting to note, and I'm not excluding myself by the way from this phenomenon, but I find it really interesting to see all of the different memes and all of the different humorous posts that are created about 2020.

"Oh, thanks a lot 2020." Oh, or, "2020 is just the worst." And there's never an end of the proliferation of memes, but the question there, it's similar to when people have the notion of rating the weather somewhere, or when they have responses to events like that, you think, "All right, does 2020 owe you something? Is there something that we're entitled to hear?" Now that I don't mean that in a heartless way, I just mean the notion that somehow world events should cooperate with our will or when you see life not going as you've planned it, suddenly getting really, really angry or suddenly questioning the existence of God.

This is a very common reason why people will question the Lord's existence, by the way. I don't think we pay enough attention to the fact that the reason we have this knee jerk response so often is that actually we think we are in control and that we've got our hands on the wheel of our life, so to speak. And when that doesn't happen, it, when that's disrupted just by the normal circumstances of life, even before the pandemic, life frequently conflicts with your will, then suddenly we're angry and we respond very, very strongly.

But if we would heed James' words here, we would recognize that we're like a mist. That's a very powerful picture by the way, and mist, the tear and then vanishes. Very evanescent, very frail, and that's what human life really is like. And that's the frailty, and yet we still think that we're in control. In some ways our technological advances and all of the innovation have worked against us, because they have misled us into thinking that we are gods.

Now, again, we won't articulate it in these terms usually, but we do think that we've largely got control of our lives and we can harness all of these tools and all of these technologies and we can control the world. But of course, if you just zoom out a little bit, we really can't. There is no control over large scale events. We can't control weather patterns. We can't control whether we're born.

Most of what transpires in a given day is outside of our control. And this is a very basic fact of human life. And yet what our technology has made it possible to deny it or to hide from it or to distract ourselves away from it. Now, we find ourselves in a moment where it's much harder to do that because the world has been brought to a grinding halt in many ways, but the response has also been so revealing.

So people are angry, people are confused. The virus, of course, in the United States, we've done something that we do with everything these days. We've politicized it. It's also turned into a source of entertainment. These are very American habits of mind, by the way. But that response, again, flows out of people, us who think that they are in control and suddenly when that vision is really disrupted, suddenly there's an angry or a volatile response.

I want to read you a passage from a book that came out in 1981 by Alasdair MacIntyre. It's called After Virtue. Very helpful book. He says this in here, he's talking, in one of the sections he has quite a lot to say about the so-called managerial sciences and the ways all of the...basically, he's talking about what he believes is a total failed project of a lot of corporations and a lot of leaders to predict and control human behavior.

And MacIntyre is going to argue human behavior does not operate according to scientific sort of enshrined laws. Human beings have wills, they have intentions, they have intuitions. There're all sorts of aspects that make human life highly unpredictable and very spontaneous. And so he's talking about this project of trying to control human beings, and he then says this. "Another way of putting the same point would be to note that omniscience excludes the making of decisions. If God knows everything that will occur, He confronts no as yet unmade decision. He has a single will." And he draws this thinking from Thomas Aquinas.

And he goes on to say, "It is precisely insofar as we differ from God, that unpredictability invades our lives." Let me say that again. "It is precisely insofar as we differ from God that unpredictability invades our lives. This way of putting the point has one particular merit. It suggests precisely what project, those who seek to eliminate unpredictability from the social world or to deny it may in fact be engaging in." What on earth is he saying?

Well, he's saying that those who try to eliminate unpredictability are playing God. Now it's not just those who are trying to manage people so to speak. It's not just those who are in charge of large corporations. This really applies on a practical level to many, many of us. And the idea that we can eliminate unpredictability from our world is one of the central illusions of our day.

And when it is disrupted, it has profound psychological effects. But here's something else I want to point out to you. I said earlier, and I'm going to try to make sense of what I said earlier. I said earlier that on the face of it, it looks kind of strange that you have an age of such convenience and relative affluence and yet such powerful anxiety. But I said, as a Christian, I don't think it's very odd that there's so much anxiety. In fact, I think it makes perfect sense. Here's why.

If you've internalized the myth that human beings are in total control, then the world is going to hammer you constantly and it's going to give you great, great need to worry. It's going to fill you with anxiety and worry, because stuff doesn't go according to plan all the time. Unpredictability is everywhere and it does not take a pandemic to get that across at all.

From relationships crumbling to terminal illnesses, to something as simple as your car breaking down or something breaking in your space of living or your home, life is so full of unpredictability, life is so full of an inconvenience that if you are believing that life should more or less cooperate with your will, your life is going to be absolutely filled with anxiety.

And what makes matters worse is that we have more tools than ever to advertise to the world that we actually are in control. And so does everybody else. And so that's what we do. And when we do that, we of course log in to our various social media accounts and we compare and contrast our lives, and we often walk away feeling as though we're the only person in the world who's not succeeding, we're the only person in the world who doesn't have it together, and yet we're often part of the problem as well, because what we put out there is also an illusion.

We put out only the best of our lives because naturally we want to put our best foot forward, especially in social settings and appearance is everything. Now, not everybody does this, of course, but by and large, this is probably the majority. And so you have just this chronic anxiety, just multiplying and multiplying and multiplying. And a good deal of it, I would suggest to you has to do with the simple fact that we need to be saying, “If the Lord wills,” instead of “I'll do this and this and this and this.” That runs the risk of sounding trivial, but I actually don't think it is.

These verses are very well known in James for a good reason, because so often we tend to think that the world should be in total cooperation with our wills. And then when it doesn't, then it's profoundly disrupting and notice then that our vision of reality is shaken, and then often we're angry at God. Those of us who are Christians often get angry at God, but this is not always the case, but oftentimes this has to do with the fact that we've bought into this illusion that we're in control.

And maybe this is you who's listening right now, and this isn't easy to hear, but just bear with me for a second. Often for many of us, the Lord can be reduced a little bit more than an accomplice or a kind of grandfather in the sky. He's there to bless you, give you what you want, ensure that your life is comfortable and cozy and going well, but by and large, He's really just there as sort of fire insurance, and for the rest of your day, you do what you want.

You pursue your projects, you pursue your plans, and you have very little to do with God. One of the ways to measure this, by the way, is the nature of your relationship with God. If you're never really talking to them at all, except on certain special occasions, or maybe when you have sort of a spiritually uplifting feeling in your heart, and you just sort of feel like cracking the Bible today, you're feeling especially pious. If that characterizes your relationship with God, if that is you don't really have one at all, you just sort of sporadically will talk to them, then usually that's a by-product of doing what you want largely and not really living a surrendered life.

On the other hand, if you're not just following your feelings when it comes to your relationship with the Lord, but you talk to Him every day, prayer is a very vital part of your life, reading and being nourished by his word is a vital part of your life. You read the Bible, not as though it's just a set of precepts or spiritually uplifting sayings, but as though it's your guide to reality, then that's a different story.

But if you've got a really superficial relationship with the Lord, when you find your plans profoundly disrupted, then you've got, let's face it a sentimental vision of God, then it makes a lot of sense if that's the nature of your relationship that you wheel around and you say, "Well, I don't think you're good after all. Why would you do this to me? Why have you abandoned me? Why am I so alone?"

And again, not to downplay or diminish, but if you're railing at the Lord for events and situations that play out in a fallen world to mortal human beings who are not in control, I think it's time to pause and reflect on actual condition. This is why Stanley Hauerwas, theologian who taught for years at Duke University, he says a lot of stuff in quite a thorny manner, but he once said this. He said, "One of the greatest enemies of North American Christianity isn't atheism, it's sentimentality."

Now that sounds...And when I first heard that, I'll be honest. Not only that I think that sounded a little bit harsh, but I also thought, "Is that accurate? That doesn't sound totally true." The older I've gotten, the more I've come to agree with him, because I've seen that same sentimentality in my own heart. And the sentimentality he's talking about is just this, that the idea that if you're following Jesus and you keep Him at arm’s length, but you go to church and occasionally you read your Bible, then everything should go well for you.

All the hard edges of life are softened. All the bullets have butterfly wings, and you're never going to do much more than stub your toe. Well, when I put it like that, that again, that's that runs the risk of sounding like a caricature, but you can see it's a sentimental vision of life. But again, notice I'm foreshadowing here a little bit. On that final episode, I'm going to talk about the illusion of immortality. You see, it doesn't sound so strange when we recognize our own habits of thought. The way we respond, how do you receive the news of death?

This is not an abstract question right now, is it? We have more of a focus on death counts these days than we have in a long time. This virus has made us pay attention to death counts in ways that are quite new to many of us. And one feature I'd like to point out again at the risk of sounding somewhat unsympathetic, but I'm not. I assure you, every human life is precious and valuable, and the loss of every human life is reason for tremendous grief. But is it really that unusual that many people die in a given day? No.

Why is our mortality...Now I know you can say, "Well, yes, but the pandemic is changing things." Yes and no. Yes and no. It's changing things I guess if we look at is as a novel virus and it is, and we don't have it completely figured out, despite what many people will tell you. Yes, there's that. That's new. But the fact that a disease is killing people is not unusual, it's not new.

You see, we really are sustained by these three illusions. We don't even realize that the idea that we're in control, the idea that we're invincible and in vulnerable, they all go together by the way. Notice they interpenetrate one another. And then finally, that we're really not mortal, that we're not really going to die. Dying is something that everybody else will do. It's a sentimental vision of reality.

And again, I'm going to say something that I've said many times on this podcast. This is where Christians emerged, not as wishful thinkers, but as very seasoned realists. Because as a Christian I will tell you, we live in a world that is fallen and filled with corruption, sin, and death. And because of that, tragedies will happen. Atrocities will happen. Terrible natural disasters will happen. Salmonella outbreaks will happen.

This is the fallen world that we live in. Your car will not start sometimes. Thousands of dollars’ worth of damage will be incurred in your homes. That's life in a fallen world. It's deeply practically true and yet so many of us when these things happen to us, respond as though they're the most catastrophic, unusual events in the world, but they're not. That's the fallen world that we live in.

Many of us are suffering from sentimentalism. And so what happens here is we experienced chronic anxiety because we feel as though everything should be happening according to our plans, everything should be under our control. And then when we see that it isn't, then there's this tremendous anxiety that sets in. It makes perfect sense because I think never in history have human beings believe with as much fervor and force as we do that we have this much control.

In the past, people simply did not have that luxury. Can you imagine people in the Middle Ages? I have often said this, I don't think that in the Middle Ages, the kinds of chronic anxiety that we see today would even be possible. First of all, people didn't have any time for it. But secondly, the fact that human beings are vulnerable and mortal and that life is fragile, it would be absolutely unavoidable.

There was disease and plague and filth and famine everywhere. Go through the Old Testament sometime, and just pay attention to times of famine, by the way. It's an instructive exercise, because the famines they're kind of a regular occurrence. There are certain stories, of course, the most famous being the story of Joseph, when the Lord reveals the famine to Joseph and Joseph makes huge provisions and ends up saving thousands and thousands of lives by storing food for the time of famine.

But you just see that this is a world where human beings are not in control and they are dependent on each other and on the cycles of the earth, and especially, imagine if you're a person who is living off of the land, if you're a farmer. This is again, a mindset that most of us aren't familiar with, but the ways in which you're dependent on the seasons, the ways in which you're dependent on the rains to water and take care of and nourish your crops.

You see these are mindsets that are so foreign to us these days. But that kind of sentimentalism that we have is a luxury of our age in some ways, but it has really, really disrupted our clear thinking, and it's been a source of tremendous anxiety for us. And what James is calling us to do here is to recognize that the one who is in control is the Lord. He alone is in control.

So when we think in these terms, we can see that scripture paints a picture of reality that is unsparing. We see that human beings are fallen. We see that death in center in the world, but we also see, thank the Lord that death doesn't have the final word. This is why the gospel is good news. This is why the fact that Jesus Christ took on flesh and came to show us what it means to live, what it means to be a person, how to live, and then went to the cross and died for us and rose again, this means that we have true long lasting hope.

Hope that can withstand all the ups and downs of this world. Yes, it's true. Many bad things do happen and will happen, but it's also true that they don't get the last word. And that the one who is in supreme control is good beyond anything we could ever imagine. We are not in control, but He is. And because of that, we can rest in our hearts and we can sleep soundly, even in the midst of a pandemic, even in the midst of these uncertain times. It's very funny. Here's another tick of our age.

In these uncertain times is a line that comes up over and over again. Now in all the verbiage of all the companies who are writing to you right now, and emailing, flooding your inbox with their COVID policy, "In these uncertain times." All times are uncertain. It's a funny phrase. By the end of this year, it's going to be as clichéd as the dreaded freshmen paper sentence, "Introduce society, in these uncertain times." Yes, all times are uncertain because we're not the ones who are in control.

That's why James says, "Don't say, hey, this year, we'll go here and here and there, and we'll invest this and we'll invest that. The economy's booming and then we're going to make this happen, and then this is going to happen." No, just say, "If the Lord wills." When I was growing up, I grew up as a missionary kid. And so my parents would often use this phrase. "Well, if the Lord wills." Or my dad would go on trips a lot, my dad was a speaker. So he would often be traveling around Europe and he would say something like, "Well, I'll see you again soon, Lord willing." And it drove me crazy.

I did not like him saying that. It really aggravated me. Because I thought, first of all, it sounds corny, but then there was another side of me that thought, “No, no, no, no, no.” Of course, I'll see you again because bad things won't happen to you or to me. But of course they could and they do. That's the world we live in. So it was right that my dad said that and I will be annoying my children with that phrase as well, because I want to remind them, I want to build in to the very imagery of my words to them, the notion that they are not in control, but that the Lord is, and that, that is good news and that they can rest easy even when terrible things happen and that it's not heartless to do that. It just is a steady and accurate acknowledgement that the Lord holds all things in his hands.

And because of that, we don't have to play God. Take that burden off of your shoulders. Our chronic anxiety in so many ways, it's the price we pay for trying to play God. Our chronic anxiety is in so many ways the price that we pay for trying to play God. It's a game that is incredibly psychologically damaging to us. We need to cut it out. We really do. And if we listen to James' words here, we can do that. And we can acknowledge that the Lord is in control and we are not. And that, that is indeed good news.

Next week, I will talk to you about the illusion of invincibility, the idea that we are invulnerable, that we're indestructible, that we can't get hurt. And we'll talk about how that is sustained and how harmful that is, and also we'll talk about the antidote to that mindset. So thank you so much for tuning in. This has been Vital Signs, a podcast exploring signs of life in today's culture. I'm your host, Cameron McAllister, and I'm a speaker and a writer here at RZIM.

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