Anxiety and Sin

Anxiety-wordsThe anxiety has returned. It’s not like it was–I want to be clear about that. But it is bad. Worse than it has been since Ellie was born.

I never know what to do with all of this, you know? I never really know what to do with the fact that my mind doesn’t obey me, that it just ignores, blatantly, my desire to live normally in this world.

I guess I’m starting to realize the the enormity of my problem. Like, I have NO IDEA how normal people feel.

This has become most apparent in my marriage. Frequently, I will begin checking in with Amanda to make sure she isn’t mad at me for some reason (she never is). After being affirmed that my marriage is safe, I begin to wonder whether some piece of busniess we have will get taken care of in time so that we don’t lose out on gobs of money. When queried about this pressing business, Amanda usually shrugs her shoulders nonchanlantly. I don’t know when the last time was that I actually shrugged by shoulders; I don’t really remember when I ever, 100%, successfully put a problem out of my mind.

But apparently it is possible.

* * *

The only time I do not feel some modicum of anxiety is when I’ve had an alcoholic beverage. When I’ve had a beer or two, the anxiety feedback loop I constantly have going is disrupted because whatever mechanism I have in my mind that tells me to worry about something outside of my control (like what people think of me, like whether my kids will sleep at the right time so I can make some phone calls) is muted. When I’ve had a drink or two, I can usually simply exist in the present. When I’ve had a drink or two, the future (and therefore my anxiety) slips out of sight. This is because anxiety, at its root, is about raging against the inability to control the future and, ultimately, is about being unable to prevent one’s death.

* * *

The first sin was the sin of pride. Adam and Eve, following Satan’s example and advice, decided that they knew better than God did what was good for them.

But the second sin, and all subsequent sins, were bigger than pride. Because, after the first sin, Death enters the world. The cosmos fractures and EVERYTHING starts to fall apart. The second law of thermodynamics–that within an isolated system the total entropy increases over time–was birthed in this moment. One aspect of the curse in Genesis 3 was that man must struggle to order his world; that the cosmos, while retaining a memory and echo of the divine music, will tend toward chaos without laborious intervention.

The most obvious and most disturbing aspect of this progressive movement, through time, toward disorder is the movement that our bodies make toward death every moment of our lives. As we age, our bodies start to break down. And we, recognizing our impending deaths, seek to stave off that fate in a variety of ways.

The ancients (this is diverse; everyone from Greeks to Anglo-Saxons) sought to cheat death by living forever in memory. Post-mortem fame is a (paltry) way to cheat death. We even find this sentiment expressed in popular saying today like “we rise again the faces of our children”–well, not really. Our children may remember us and may look like us, but we don’t, in any substantive way, survive death in them.

Our culture in particular, but other cultures also throughout time, have tried to mitigate death by affirming the credo that “whoever dies with the most toys wins.” If life must end, then at least one can win at life by taking possession of life’s material goods. The Egyptian Pharaohs viewed life in this way; this is why they were buried with gold, jewels, and weapons–the accumulated wealth of this world would stand as a memorial to their greatness.

Hedonism is another response. If this life is temporary, then one should make the most of it. Pursue pleasure as the ultimate goal. This life is thus like a vacation in which you give yourself permission to do whatever you want because you know you will have to return to the drudgery of normal life soon enough.

The first sin was a libertarian free choice–there was nothing in our first parents that predisposed them to sin. And who knows for how many eons they were tempted before they finally conceded their innocence? But once the choice was made, once Death cast its pall over human existence, we were fundamentally altered. Unlike Adam and Eve, we would begin life with the knowledge of our brokenness. Every action we took, every decision we made, would be done in response to the first fact of our existence: things (us included) don’t work the way they are supposed to.

And because we can’t prevent our deaths, because things don’t work the way they are supposed to, we are afflicted with a kind of neurosis as the vantage point from which we react to the world.

* * *

If you will take just 30 seconds to reflect honestly on all the ways in which you are warped and broken, I’m sure you could come up with a fairly comprehensive list. Sin–the behavioral acting out of our neurosis–is a lot bigger than infractions against the Divine Law. Sin is anything that we do that disrupts God’s peace, that feeds the satanic chaos of our world. Much like those who have suffered at the hands of a violent man respond with violence, so do we, who have suffered at the hands of a broken world, respond with sin.

As I’ve been fairly honest about here on the blog and in person with friends and family, I suffer from Generalized Anxiety Disorder. This is not my fault. It may have a genetic factors as well as environmental factors. But, whatever the cause, I didn’t choose this. But, when I operate out of my anxiety in ways that emotionally harm myself or others, that is my fault. It is not as basic as employing simple willpower, of course. Once I am in the grips of an anxiety attack, it is virtually impossible for me to reign myself in in any kind of a quick or easy manner. But, I can choose to put in the legwork on a day to day basis that I know will reduce my anxiety–and doing that is a matter of submitting to the guidance of the Holy Spirit in my heart.

* * *

My anxiety can prevent me from making a decision (about simple things like where to eat or more complex things like how to respond to horrific tragedies); it can lock me in place. My anxiety also, almost always, foists instant regret on any decision that I do make.

The consequences of being wrong stagger me. Maybe they shouldn’t, but they do. If I get something wrong, if I misread a situation or fail to make myself abundantly clear, then I could end up on the wrong side of history, of Truth. My biggest fear is being misunderstood; I am terrified that people will think the wrong things about me, that they will think I think something that I don’t think. This is about controlling other people, after all.

For example, with all of the horrific racial violence of the past few weeks (Dallas, Baton Rouge, Michigan, and elsewhere), I’ve been struck by the simple-minded responses from so many people I know on social media. I have seen about a bajillion memes shared of something like “BLUE LIVES MATTER” or “ALL LIVES MATTER” as if those messages were ever in doubt, as if anybody but a sociopathic lunatic thought that police officers deserved to die for being police officers, as if affirming that black people are disproprotianely mistreated by those is power (which is just one of the simplest facts in contemporary America; you’ve got to be living under a rock to think that black people have it just as good as white people) means that everybody else ought to be shot. I’ve also seen about a bajillion articles/posts that say something like “yeah, police officers were ambushed and gunned down while defending a peaceful protest that criticized the police and that is bad, but it is not really as bad as black people getting killed” as if the it were a competition for victimhood, as if the deaths of one group took away from the deaths of another group.

And you know what I’m thinking as I scroll through posts of all stripes on social media? I’m thinking: “Man, it would be really nice to take a single, non-divided look at a tragic event. It sure would be nice to be able to say, without equivocation, THIS is what is the right response here and I KNOW this for a fact.” But I can’t. I am constitutionally incapable of picking a side in an ideological match-up. Oh, sure, I have my opinions about the way the world works and should work, but I find it very, very difficult to sort myself into preexisting categories, especially in response to politically charged tragedies. I don’t see politically charged tragedies like the deaths of police officers at the hands of domestic terrorists or the deaths of black men at the hands of incompetent or racist police as possessing a single meaning meriting a single response not because I am measured and controlled and slow to speak. Rather, it is because I don’t want to be wrong.

* * *

My anxiety is primarily about doing or saying the wrong thing; I imagine the vague, poorly defined consequences that will result from me screwing up and I either become paralyzed or I make a decision and instantly regret it. As I wrote above, this is because my anxiety is my way of trying to control my future. As I learn to cope with my anxiety (a limp I think I will probably have all of my life), I am adopting practices that will help keep my disorder from holding sway over my life (I will add that I am back in counseling again; my anxiety flares up the worst during transition and change and I would say that having a new baby, moving into a new house, and then having to move out of that house because of a mold problem counts):

First, I am to trust God. I find this pretty difficult to do, of course, since I can’t see God and barely “sense” him. If my wife says to me “I promise, I will handle x,” then trusting her would be easy. In contrast, because I struggle to perceive God as a person with whom I have a relationship, I struggle to trust him. I can cultivate this trust God by regularly praying (something that the chaos of this summer has driven from me), regularly attending church, and participating in spiritual community.

Second, I am to locate goodness in the world. One feature of anxiety is that it is obsessive. If I am worried about something, then I pursue that thing until I am sick and exhausted. But I am not going to quickly solve all of the problems in my life that spark my anxiety. Instead of waiting until everything is back to “normal” to pursue goodness, I ought to pursue it day by day. I can locate this goodness in the world by pursuing the virtuous life–by reading great books, by writing regularly, by going out with friends, by playing with my children, by pursuing my wife, by cooking good food, by eating right, by exercising, by listening to interesting podcasts, etc.

One deep root of my anxiety is the voice in my head that says “you break everything you touch.” That is the voice of accusation, not the voice of God. In Christ I am a new creation. I am a beloved adopted son of God. I am loved by my wife and kids and family and friends. Rightly ordering my affections, my desires, will be the result of this pursuit of God and the goodness all around me.

And though the world be broken around me, I look forward to the life of the world to come.

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