The Good News and the Anxiety of Choice

We live in an anxious age.  Whereas previous ages were preoccupied by their inescapable fate (imagine what it meant to be born a slave in the Roman empire – how little say over your life you would have had), or how to escape the burden of guilt and condemnation (Luther’s cry “how can I find a gracious God?” is a classic expression of this), in our age we have different preoccupations. In place of the complete absence of choice, we have far too many choices. In place of the search for a gracious God, we have a million different types of therapy, and a relativist world where there are a million ways to live.

Contemporary Canadian theologian Douglas John Hall, following Tillich, argues that the primary problem facing contemporary culture is

…meaninglessness and and emptiness…. Manifesting itself in a pervasive sense of purposelessness, superfluity, boredom, escapism, etc., is so profound and perplexing an anxiety that few Christians have been courageous enough to plumb its depths.

Douglas John Hall The Cross in Our Context – p.130

However, that doesn’t seem to be the overriding experience of life as much as anxiety is.  To paraphrase Tillich, what if the anxiety of our age was, in fact, anxiety?

In April a joint report by Mission Australia and the Black Dog Institute found nearly one in four Australian teenagers met the criteria for having a “probable serious mental illness” — a 20 per cent increase from five years ago.

ABC News 27/11/2017

It is undeniable that anxiety is on the rise in teens, as documented by Jean Twenge – see her article in The Atlantic. She blames smartphones and social media. I couldn’t find any equivalent documentation for adults, but I’m going to consider young people the canaries in the coal mine – most open to, and affected by, the psychic mood of the culture. Certainly I’m pretty anxious, and most people I know seem to be.

I’ve asked a few people about it, and we wondered whether meaninglessness might be more likely to lead to depression rather than anxiety. But I suspect the two might have a deep relationship.

I had a completely non-scientific think about what might make for anxiety, and I came up with the following non-exhaustive list of questions.

  • Does the collapse in meta-narratives (e.g. progress, communism) lead to greater anxiety?
  • Does it have something to do with greater consumer choice?
  • Public / curated nature of life in the age of social media?
  • Too much exposure to bad news?

In my experience there are a couple of different ways anxiety shows up. One definitely has to do with the open-ended nature of choice.

Anne and I spent six weeks walking the Camino de Santiago a few years ago, and one of the key things about it is how restricted your choices are. Get up, do your foot care routine, walk, eat, walk, eat, walk, wash yourself and your clothes, eat, bed early, do it again. There weren’t many places to stay, and not many places to eat.  There was only one thing to do – to make your day’s worth of incremental progress to Santiago. It was a very non-anxious experience (though physically very difficult, and not without emotional challenges.)

But when we had to try to figure out how to get ourselves over to Wales to visit Anne’s brother we faced hundreds of possible choices, none of them obviously better than the others. It was like being dropped into a giant sea of anxiety. The simplicity of life was over, and I was oppressed by the impossibility of making the optimal decision.

Or take the act of writing this. What constitutes an “optimal” blog post? Are there other things I should be doing? Is it a gigantic waste of time? I could be doing a lot of other things: why this particular thing? It is both ironic, and deeply self-referential, that I find the act of writing about anxiety to be quite anxiety inducing.

Running more deeply is a sense of whether I am choosing a good life. For instance, I used to drive through the leafy suburbs of Melbourne’s prosperous east on the way to work in Glen Iris and think to myself: am I making a wise choice? I could have a career that would allow me to afford a beautiful house in a nice area, instead of my perfectly nice, but simple, house in a rather more down-to-earth location.  There are so many ways in which we could live: it’s so different to the experience of the Roman slave with no choices whatsoever. Of course, I would far rather have my problems than those experienced by common people in the Classical Era (it would be hard to overstate quite how much worse life was for ordinary people in ancient Rome and Greece and other comparable civilisations.) But it isn’t without cost.

Perhaps this does related to a collapse in agreed meaning in our culture. If it was held to be obvious that a career in the ordained ministry was a Good Thing, the cultural affirmation might make up for the lower financial rewards compared to, say, being a senior consultant for a software consultancy, or a lawyer. But there is no such agreement in our culture. In fact, quite the contrary.  It isn’t a job held in terribly high esteem culturally, and the best case seems to be people thinking, good on you – go live your truth!

The anxiety literature suggests a connection between anxiety and the difference between an external and an internal locus of control. I wonder whether that has a relationship to the lack of over-arching meaning structures in our culture? My sense that I am living in tune with what is actually, objectively, a better way to live buffers me in my decision to live in a particular way. And I can call on Scriptural justifications for this stance. Jesus is very aware of opposition to his life and teaching, and that it would lead to opposition to his followers: “If the world hates you, be aware that it hated me before it hated you.” (John 15:18)

To immerse yourself in your calling – that, it seems to me, is what increases your internal locus of control. This is supposed to be a theological blog, rather than amateur psycho-analysis, so let’s dig deeper into the Scriptural, theological, side of what it might mean to be so immersed in your call, so committed to it, that it mitigates your anxiety. Mitigates it, because I suspect nothing is going to completely solve it. Jesus seems non-anxious, in our current definition of anxiety as choice related. He knew who he was and what he was about. This doesn’t mean that he was an entirely calm presence – he was angry and afraid and all the rest, when it was appropriate. But there is an underlying solidity about him that is profoundly attractive. As he put it:

‘Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.’

Matthew 11:28-30

A lot of theological ink has been spilled on the question of what salvation actually is. There is a very strong tradition in the Western church to understand it in legal terms: You have a moral debt to God that is completely beyond your means: God pays it for you. This has been such an empowering and freeing insight for so many people that I’m hesitant to question it. But one of the issues with it is that it focusses so much on getting you off the hook for moral failure that it neglects the next stage: you’re saved – now what?  With the laudable desire to focus on the free, unearned nature of grace, and the decisive nature of God’s intervention, and the consequent desire not to fall into the trap of attempting to earn God’s favour, it tends to make discipleship secondary – something for super-Christians. But Jesus does seem very, very keen on discipleship. “Take up your cross and follow me,” he says. Not: sit around congratulating yourself on your narrow escape.

The missing element is, I think the relationship of faith and call. To have faith in Christ is to be drawn into relationship with Jesus. And that means doing what he does. Collaborating with God. Which will mean both work, but also contemplation and worship and rest and relationships, and all that makes for a full human life.

This provides a strong framework for building a non-anxious life. If I am living like Jesus lived – or, rather, attempting to reframe my life in this way, not attempting to earn God’s favour, but because all that God has to offer is, in the final analysis, God, then I am being drawn into relationship with the Trinitarian God. Framing your life around collaboration with God provides a clear, but not linear, way to live. It isn’t a collection of rules – or, rather, it isn’t adequately expressed as a collection of rules, which are a very low resolution way of ruling the worst behaviour out. What God has to say is the logos– that is Jesus. Living in relationship with Jesus, collaborating with God’s mission in the world in our particular life-circumstances is not a condition to be met before I can receive some arbitrary reward, but the reward itself.

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