Anxiety of Modern Life
In our modern world, anxiety is a constant. The great poet, W. H. Auden, commented in the middle of the last century that we live in an age of anxiety. What would he have said today when anxiety is exploited by advertisers and developers of new products? Anxiety fuels social interactions and relationships from parenting to marriage. Anxiety is addressed, often appropriately, through medication. Anxiety is usually running in the background of all of our lives, fueling and shaping our very existence. How do we understand and address anxiety in our lives?
There is a tension that is always at work in our lives and the way we hold that tension determines everything. In the account of Mary and Martha with Jesus, we get a window into this tension.
Now as they went on their way, Jesus entered a village. And a woman named Martha welcomed him into her house. And she had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to his teaching. But Martha was distracted with much serving. And she went up to him and said, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to serve alone? Tell her then to help me.” But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things, but one thing is necessary. Mary has chosen the good portion, which will not be taken away from her.” Lk 10:38-42
The tension is illustrated with Mary and Martha as the difference between being and doing. People tend to identify with being one or the other of the personalities in this account, but the reality is that we all have both Mary and Martha living inside of us. Mary, the one who simply is … she is comfortable simply sitting and enjoying the presence of Jesus. She is comfortable “being.” Martha is the doer. The problem isn’t that one is better than the other, but that the order of doing and being was reversed.
Luke mentions that Martha was “distracted” or drawn away from something. She was drawn away from “being” which Jesus described as the “one necessary thing” or the good part. Certainly, Jesus didn’t mean that “doing” is bad because it is also a “part”. The emphasis is on the order of the two. Being should precede doing. What we do in life should flow from who we are. Our world tells us that we have to “do” (to perform and please and produce) in order to have a sense of “being” (significance, security, strength). Martha was not doing from a place of being …
Evelyn Underhill describes it this way:
“We spend most of our time conjugating three verbs: to want, to have, and to do … craving, clutching, and fussing … we are kept in perpetual unrest; forgetting that none of these verbs has any ultimate significance except so far as they are included in the fundamental verb, to be, and that being, not wanting, having, and doing, is the essence of a spiritual life.”
When the order of being/doing gets reversed, it creates anxiety in our lives. Jesus shares with Martha that she is anxious and troubled. Martha likely viewed it differently. She saw everyone else as the problem. Mary wasn’t helping! And, Jesus didn’t care! When our “doing” is utilized to give us a sense of “being” – it always leads to a place of anxiety …
When we try to gain a sense of wholeness in our being through our own efforts, we can never do enough which only serves to increase the anxiety. How much do we have to do to feel good about ourselves? How much money do we need to have in order to feel secure? How many friends do we need to feel loved? It is a never ending pursuit which can only serve to further our feelings of insecurity, inadequacy, and illegitimacy. In addition, when we are seeking to find wholeness through what we can do, we can always lose our abilities, our relationships, and our resources.
The very thing we seek, a life of peace and fulfillment, is elusive when we are trying to find it. This is why Jesus said, in Luke 9, “if you are trying to find your life, you will lose it. But, if you lose your life, you will find it.” What a paradoxical statement! And, what He simply means is that we only find, or experience, the life we desire when we let go and stop “doing.” If we will just sit at the feet of Jesus, we begin to see that all we are longing for is ours already. We are at peace, we are loved, we are secure, we are strong, we are worthy, and we are gifted.
One of the first hurdles in reversing the trend of “doing leading to being” is acknowledging the anxiety that is in our lives. Richard Rohr suggests:
“Our culture teaches us that everything out there is hostile. We have to compare, dominate, control, and insure. In brief, we have to be in charge. That need to be in charge moves us deeper and deeper into a world of anxiety.”
We might be able to acknowledge this in the broader culture but what about in our own lives? How do I know if I am an anxious doer? We can look at how we pray. For Martha, her prayer (her conversation with Jesus) was a demand. First, a demand of others and then secondly, a demand of Him. If we are anxious doers, our prayers will be shaped by demands and requests. However, if we are living out of our being, our prayers will be much more shaped by listening and receiving the truth of who we are because of Christ.
Next, how do we move into a place of “being before doing”? Very simply, Jesus said:
“And do not seek what you are to eat and what you are to drink, nor be worried. For all the nations of the world seek after these things, and your Father knows that you need them. Instead, seek his kingdom, and these things will be added to you.”
The word “seek” carries the connotation of desire. Jesus challenges us not to desire the very things that make us anxious (in the ancient context it was food and drink), but to desire the kingdom. What is the kingdom? It is life in His presence. The antidote to anxiety is not trying to not be anxious, but to change the object of our desire! Are you desiring a “worry free life” in which you have everything you think you need? Or, are you desiring life with Him in which you trust Him to take care of you? A life of “doing” is still part of the equation but the way you “do” will have a new energy and focus … your life with Him!
Consider the following prayer, written by Reinhold Niebuhr in the middle of the last century, and then make it your own:
God, give me grace to accept with serenity the things that cannot be changed, Courage to change the things which should be changed, and the Wisdom to distinguish the one from the other. Living one day at a time, enjoying one moment at a time, accepting hardship as a pathway to peace, taking, as Jesus did this sinful world as it is, not as I would have it, trusting that You will make all things right if I surrender to Your will, so that I may be reasonably happy in this life, and supremely happy with You forever in the next. Amen.
Photo: Tony O’Brien, from the book Light in the Desert