Anxiety and the Future

“If you’re depressed, you’re living in the past. If you’re anxious, you’re living in the future. If you’re at peace, you’re living in the present.”

—Lao Tzu, Chinese philosopher

“Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.”

—Jesus, Palestinian rabbi (Matthew 6:34)

“Yet you do not even know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes.”

—James 4:14

These quotes have been on my mind quite a bit these days. Well into the pandemic and with an election around the corner, I spend a lot of time thinking about the future. And being anxious. What is going to happen to our country? How do we recover from such divisive times? How do we fight systemic racism? How do we tackle global climate change? On a personal level, what are we going to do about the holidays this year?

And so we have these quotes. Focus on the present instead of worrying about tomorrow. But, honestly, they seem like empty platitudes in the face of so much. Letting tomorrow worry about itself feels like how we got here in the first place. Is this way of thinking even useful for today? How do we make responsible, educated, choices that impact tomorrow without thinking about tomorrow? Can we ease our anxiety and still be responsible citizens?

I don’t really know, but I have some thoughts.

One way forward, is to recognize that we do need to think about the future, but only so long as it takes us to make a decision. Once we’ve made a decision about the future and have a plan of action, continuing to think about the future is only heaping coals on our own heads.

And I think action is important here. Idleness is directly connected to increased anxiety, so maybe Jesus isn’t telling us to throw away all cares and just do what feels good in the moment. Maybe he’s telling us if we’re worried about the future, then we need to take action in the present and focus on that.

That sounds nice, but I can only go to so many protests, write so many blog posts, and vote so many times (once per election).

Maybe what these three quotes are getting at is less “thinking about the future” and more “setting expectations for the future and needing those expectations to be met.”

It’s one thing to know, for example, that Biden might lose, and it’s an altogether different thing to need Biden to win. The first statement is an acknowledgment of a possible future outcome. The second is investing myself into a future outcome. Acknowledging a potential future loss is much less anxiety producing than having tightly held requirements of future outcomes. And if I’m invested in future outcomes, then I’m necessarily less invested in the current moment.

Ultimately, I suppose, what we have to do is take those actions we can take now, not invest ourselves too heavily into desired outcomes, and then focus on loving those around us (1 Cor 16:14). If we’re giving ourselves fully to what we are doing and to those we are with, then we are, necessarily, focused on the present moment, which should crowd out our anxiety. It probably wouldn’t hurt to get up and go on a walk, either.

Grace and Peace to you all.

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    • Bart Hennigan