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What's Behind All the Anxiety?

This week -- a week in which so much attention was, and is, focused on Tuesday's earthquake and this weekend's Hurricane Irene -- I want to offer first, a few words of gratitude, and then ask some tough questions, and then issue a pastoral challenge.

Words of gratitude: I'm grateful for the fact that Tuesday's earthquake hurt no one: as far as I know, not one human being was killed or even hurt as a result of what could have been, in other areas or in different circumstances, a disaster. Yes, there was some structural damage, some of it significant, such as (within our own denomination at least) at the National Cathedral and at Stephen's Episcopal Church in Culpepper. But luckily, not even in those places were any people harmed.

Right here at home, I'm grateful that the large stained glass window at the rear of our church had been removed in its entirety just hours before the earthquake hit. While the removal of the stained glass window had absolutely nothing to do with the earthquake (as announced last Sunday, it was planned long before as part of an overall restoration effort), we were very fortunate that the window was removed before all the shaking began, because who knows if the window, fragile as it was, would have survived that event.

I'm also grateful for the way that our team of leaders of Middle School Outreach Camp handled themselves on Tuesday. Eighteen students were in Washington D.C. participating in a ministry to feed people who are homeless with the Church of the Epiphany, D.C. When the earthquake hit, the church staff calmly evacuated the building, and the church staff stayed in touch with Pastor Mary until the students had left the parking garage.

Pastor Mary was in constant touch with the sponsors of the event in D.C. as well as the students' parents. The leaders from St. James' (Beth Lam, Terry Young, Alice Lees, Leslie Boissiere, and Suzanne Szabo) were a non-anxious presence to the students, and Pastor Mary was a non-anxious presence to the parents, fielding calls back at home.

I said they were a "non-anxious presence," a term popularized by the psychologist Ed Freidman, author of two works of sheer genius, Generation to Generation and A Failure of Nerve.

And it's the term "non-anxious presence" that brings me to the tough questions I want to ask today:

What, do you suppose, is behind all the massive amounts of anxiety in our culture today?

Our culture -- despite being the safest, most secure, healthiest and wealthiest people on the planet, ever - seems chronically anxious just about all the time. Anxious about school safety. Anxious about national security. Anxious about "the" economy (as if there were only one economy in this massive, complex world!) Anxious about health. And even anxious about our anxiety as we spend hundreds of millions of dollars each year on prescription drugs to treat it.

(In some cases there is cause for concern. I'm not minimizing that. But "being concerned" and therefore taking responsible and proper actions about those concrete concerns is very different than being generally and unproductively anxious: it's the difference between rolling up one's sleeves to work, and wringing one's hands in anxiety.)

So there's already a low level of chronic anxiety in our culture. But then add to that anxiety a "weather event" -- potentially big ones like Tuesday's earthquake and Hurricane Irene but even smaller things like a winter's snowfall -- and that anxiety comes out full force.

What's with our tendency to glue ourselves (at best) to the NOAA website or the Weather Channel or (at worst, because they only reinforce our hysteria) the network and cable news channels?

What's with the hyperventilating rush to the grocery store at the first mention of a snow flurry to "stock up" on "essentials" as if the average U.S. household wasn't already obscenely overstocked and the fat reserves on the average American body (including mine) weren't enough to survive two weeks without a single bite to eat?

And even when we do lose power for several days or a week: any previous U.S. generation would treat the inconvenience as just that: a temporary inconvenience; why do we treat it as if were the beginning of a post-apocalyptic every-man-for-himself Start of the Dark Ages?

To be specific: on Tuesday, I noticed two reactions to the earthquake. On the one hand, a highly anxious "omigodwecan'tgetintouchwithanyonewe'reonahighfloorwegottagetouttahere" breathless-type anxiety. And on the other hand, a calm, "wonder what that was, oh, an earthquake, hmmm...gotta get back to work" mindset that took it in stride.

Now I'm very much aware that many people's first thought, especially in the Washington D.C. area, was "maybe this was another 9-11 terrorist attack?" I understand that worry. It's not entirely unreasonable.

But that just begs the question: why are the safest, most secure, healthiest and wealthiest people on the planet worried about our safety more than people who are actually in daily danger of attack, disease, and hunger?

Want to know what real worry about safety is like? Talk to any spouse of any U.S. service member currently serving in the Middle East. Talk to a policeman working the night shift. Even better, talk to the people working with Episcopal Relief and Development trying to help the refugees streaming out of Somalia, or the girls at the Bromley Episcopal Mission School in Liberia who were orphaned during the civil war in that country.

So those are my tough questions.

And here's my pastoral challenge: we need to get a Life.

Here's what I mean by that: I think part of the reason that people overly focus on weather events and so-called crises is that deep down, we're bored.

These big events are something different. Something bigger than we are. Something we all have in common.

And to take that a step further, "something different, bigger than we are, and have in common" is another name for a god.

I'll go so far as to say that I think crises - both the real ones and the manufactured/hyped ones - are a false god...something that is appealing to us when we are "flabby, with small passions," something that will draw our attention to the degree we do not already have a compelling vision, a driving force, a solid center.

One of our ministries to the world (as individual Christians and as a faith community) is to be what Friedman calls a "non-anxious presence."

Being such a presence comes from having a solid center, a core, and a driving purpose that does not literally blow with the winds of the current crisis. (The Living Son of the Living God is one such center, core, and purpose.)

Becoming such a person and such a faith community is not easy, and staying such a person and faith community is a daily battle.

But an overly anxious culture craves people and communities who have a solid center, a core, a driving purpose. And among other things, we are called to be such people and such a community, for ourselves and for them.

Now that's a good challenge!


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