Anxiety keeps us preoccupied with the future; it is the unsettled and unsatisfied feeling that comes from our worries and fears about tomorrow. At its root, of course, anxiety is our “dis-ease” over the fact that we will, one day, die; but most of the time it manifests itself as nagging questions like: “What is going to happen to me?” “Am I going to have enough of what I need to make it, to be safe and secure?” “Will the people I love be alright?”
Some of us respond to the anxiety we feel by refusing to engage life fully. Theologian Paul Tillich noticed how we try to avoid “non-being by avoiding being.” We use only a part of our powers, act on only a few of our dreams, invest only a fraction of our energies, and release into the world only a part of our truest selves. It’s almost as if we believe that we will live twice as long if we live only half a life.
Otto Rank described people who try to defend themselves against death by refusing to live: “they refused the loan (of life) in order to avoid the payment of the debt (of death).” Or as Ernest Becker put it, “The irony of [the human] condition is that [our] deepest need is to be free of the anxiety of death and annihilation; but it is life itself which awakens [this anxiety], so we must shrink from being fully alive.” Because we are anxious about the future, especially about the death that awaits us there, we never really live in the present.
Others of us become obsessed with the things that seem to promise to sustain life. In his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus invited us to let go of our anxiety about life. He said, “Do not worry about your life, what you will eat, or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear.” And, “do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own.” He also asked a crucial question, which reveals the futility of anxiety about life: “Can any of you by worrying add a single hour to the span of your life?” Jesus wanted us to know that God is aware of, and generous with, the things we need to sustain our lives: “God in heaven knows that you need all these things.”
Jesus also urged us to give more attention to the meaning of life than to the means of extending it: “Strive first for the kingdom of God and God’s righteousness and all these things will be given to you as well.”
So, anxiety breeds in our fears of an unlived life–our dread that we will die before we ever discover why we were born. To accumulate the material things that prop up existence will never drive-out that anxiety. As the naturalist Bill McKibben put it: “The consumer society has one great weakness, one flank left unprotected. And that is for all its superficial sugary jazzy sexy appeal, it has not done a particularly good job of making people happy.” Jesus direcs our gaze beyond these things to their source and ours—to God who gives us what we most need: freedom to live with trust and with joy.