Living with Anxiety, Dying for Peace

I’ve been feeling like I need to reflect and contemplate why we feel such great anxiety in today’s world. We are plagued with alarms, deadlines, expectations, fears, limits, worries, lists and sleeplessness. I catch myself making mental lists before I go to bed instead of thanking God for another day and on that same night, I will wake up and remember one more thing to add to that list and this pattern has been going on for a few months. So I thought I would research and do some reading about anxiety. I came across Venerable Fulton Sheen’s “Peace of Soul” and it answered my questions so profoundly. So I have summarized one of the chapters in hopes that it will help you understand why we all suffer with anxiety and what we can do to relieve our worries.

I have a lot of “what ifs” floating around in my head. These fears stem from the need to be secure, to feel safe, to be taken care of. As women, many of us desire this protection and project this desire onto the people we meet. We either build walls to protect ourselves from pain or look to the other person as the source of our comfort and security. It is good to desire protection. But we cannot control the unexpected moments that might harm or damage us. The sense of helplessness and fear of the other or of the unknown creates an internal combustion and struggle within ourselves where we wind ourselves up so tightly and are run down by the whole process of self-preservation. We are so afraid of everything and we are so restless for something more. Sheen states that our anxiety is attributed to our fallen nature and how we are made of both body and soul. Our body has wants, needs and desires that never seem to be quenched by earthly means. The body links us to the animal while the soul links us to the angels. The finite and infinite meet. We are moving in time and seeking the eternal which is out of time but settle for the fleeting charms of the world. The tension between who we presently are (Genesis’ Adam) and who we ought to be (the redeemed Adam) is where the anxiety lies. We want to achieve greatness, to make our parents proud, to prove the bullies wrong, to set ourselves on this path but we are limited by our resources, helplessness and lowliness.

It is good to want more! It is good to have ambition but when those desires are harmful to our soul and separate us from God, that is when the anxiety creeps in. We want to be saints but we are stuck in our sin because we are prone to descending to less than we are. We have the free choice to disappoint, and to be less than who we are because of God’s love for us. We are made of spirit and matter. Since we have the capacity to be strong and weak, free and shackled, blind and farseeing, we are at a crossroads and constant battle between our flesh and spirit because our soul’s final and eternal state is undecided. We are stuck within a time we did not choose and we are restless because we are made for eternity. We can have a sick body and a sick spirit broken by anxiety and heartache. But we can also be restored because God is faithful. We want to be with God but we also want to be our own God and control everything. Change numbs us with crippling fear because it robs us off our comfort and capacity to control. I struggle with this very much and Sheen says that the despair and anxiety that we feel is from the desperate desire to be independent from anything or anyone. But the despair can also be from wanting to be perfect and the desire to get rid of the humanness and frailty we have.

Peace is possible, but it is hard and so counter-cultural! Sheen says there are three steps we need to follow to gain peace:

  1. Controlling desires.

We think acquiring things or people’s love will make the quality of our life and value exponentially better but the disappointment we feel when failing to gain these desires exposes the lies that society has taught us. We are not machines or products of consumption, we are more than that because we have the capacity to love, know and be. Desires are good! But ordering them is important with God 1st, man 2nd and things 3rd. Sheen says that “once the soul recognizes that it is made for God, it abandons the bourgeois idea that every person is to be judged by what he has”. Our souls are hungry and cannot be filled with iPads, social media, and relationships with strings. Sheen ended the chapter with this: “If there were anywhere on earth a resting place other than God, the human soul in its long history would have found it before this.” Only God can satisfy. As St. Augustine said: “our hearts are restless until it rests in You”.

2. Transferring anxiety from body to soul.

Sheen speaks about being “wisely anxious” because all love involves anxiety. We need to decide what or who is worth the heartache and craziness because no one is sufficient for himself. We need community. We need love. If we want true love, we need to fight our temporal body to gain what is eternal. We need to discern what is worthy of our anxiety and worry. Fulton Sheen wrote that “the less grace there is in the soul, the more ornament there is on the body” and that “all intense interest in luxury is a mark of inner poverty”. We so badly want to be consumed by physical gain, possessions, fame, and security to such a harmful excess that eventually destroys from the inside out.  By gratifying limitless desires, more desires arise. Never satisfied but always hungry. Always full, but never enough. This quote struck a chord in me, as women we want to be known and appreciated. We want to be beautiful. Special. Set apart. But does my desire for self-recognition cloud God’s desire for me? Loving yourself, loving others and love of things are not wrong but they become destructive when it is the sole means of our happiness and how we dictate our value. Each of us has poverty inside of us. What is your poverty? What leaves you hungry and lonely? This will take discipline but concerning yourself with increasing your own virtue and love for God will help reduce the anxiety in other parts of your life because now your means to each end will be God.

3. Surrendering to God’s will.

Since love is reciprocal, we give what we receive. We trust those who trust us. This is why trusting God is so unique and needed to lessen the anxiety that lingers within us. God is waiting to offer us blessings and graces but we have to ask for them first! We are relieved from anxiety by giving ourselves fully to God’s unconditional love. He won’t break your heart like the others did. Perfect love casts out all fear. Giving ourselves in bits and pieces will not do, trust me I’ve tried. I’ve realized that fear cripples and God will not bring me harm. The fear of the past, the anxiety of the future and the stillness of the present should not hinder you from receiving His mercy. He wants to know you. The rest is up to you.

We all have anxiety. We all have memories, moments, and desires which subconsciously affect our personality and reactions. The bus is a great place to see people’s stories and worries. I take the bus and see young adults go to university scrambling to study to make their parents’ dreams come true and validate their potential. I see parents, worn out from the day, with bags of groceries to make dinner and provide for the family. On the bus I get tempted to drown out the world, put my headphones in and fall into another world that can’t hurt or affect me. But sometimes I take my headphones out and am amazed at what I see. We are all walking stories. It’s easy to fall into indifference and sleep through life without choosing God or the world. Sometimes we forget what we are made for. We have will power and free choice. To not use our ability to choose what is right is an injustice and disservice to our being. A part of the human condition is experiencing the very real tension between what lasts and what falls to dust. We want to invest ourselves into our jobs, and into people but fear holds us back. If we follow these 3 steps, the fear will become an easier battle to conquer. It won’t happen overnight but will be a process. Whose love are you chasing after? Who do you want to be? Use these answers to fuel who you become.