I was recently involved in a conversation about stress and anxiety in which we struggled to define these terms. At the time, I said that maybe stress came from an inability to be fully present with the task at hand. That might be correct, but I have since felt there was more to say on the topic. This is mainly because I have been, well, very stressed of late and in need of some clarity on the issue.
I am a believer in the idea that peace comes from a capacity to bear all things and that this peace is a gift, not a right, and certainly not something we can generate merely on our own. It is the gift of charity, the pure love of Christ, and it only comes to those who “pray unto the Father with all the energy of heart, that ye may be filled with this love” (Moroni 7:48). You don’t have to be sincere in your love, at least not initially, as Gene England used to say, you just need to sincerely want to be, and you need to understand that this power comes from the atonement of Christ and is granted to us according to our faith and desire.
That isn’t to say that we shouldn’t work hard at habits conducive to a more peaceful life—things like taking concrete steps to simplify our lives, living with a high purpose, practicing generous and cheerful service of others, getting enough sleep and exercise, prayer, meditation, scripture study, reading poetry, or other practices. It hardly makes sense to talk about peace while one is at war. If your life is a combative struggle to hang on, to accomplish the next task on your “to do” list, and to worry yourself almost exclusively about meeting the expectations of others, then peace is not likely around the corner. At the same time, however, I find that even in a relatively healthy state of mind or condition of life, I find myself capable of unexpected anxieties and stresses. Part of this has to do with the fact that if one is living with a serious commitment to Christian discipleship, one is, in fact, supposed to be concerned about the welfare of others. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that one is surrounded every day by people in some kind of need and that if one is looking, one will find a burden to share.
In our conversation, a friend pointed out this scripture from Jacob, who is in the middle of a prophecy concerning the failings of future generations. He says: “Behold, my beloved brethren, I will unfold this mystery unto you; if I do not, by any means, get shaken from my firmness in the Spirit, and stumble because of my over anxiety for you.” (Jacob 4:18) Two things jump out at me here. One is that he acknowledges that love can slip into “over anxiety” or excessive worry. And the second is the idea that such emotions can cause us to stumble and to fail in the very acts of love we intend to carry out. We may actually harm those we intend to help and harm ourselves in the process, and this appears to be because of insufficient trust in God’s purposes, his timing, and a peaceful acceptance of the simple fact of another’s agency.
I remember when I was a missionary in Venezuela, and my companion and I were working very hard to extract a woman and her daughter from a financially (and we feared perhaps also sexually) abusive relationship with a boyfriend, and I could see the mother going back and forth in her mind about what to do. Her path to the right choice, in my mind, was as clear as the sunshine at noon, but she had intense fears and anxieties about her future without this man. I found myself growing angry with her, angry that she would put her own daughter in harm’s way, that she could not find the courage to do what she knew was right, and that many more years of suffering lay ahead if she did not act now. My anxiety got to a boiling point. I found myself one evening alone crying out in anxiety, pleading with God to make the whole set of circumstances change. After a prolonged period of venting out loud, I found myself without any more words. And then I felt an intense chastening come upon me. I could suddenly see what I fool I was to believe that I could force another person to change or that God didn’t understand the kind of agony I was feeling. I began to understand and have ever since believed that this over anxiety is not of God. I wanted to change her, at least in part, because it would make me feel good. Controlling and manipulative love, even when guided by ideas of right living, is egotistical, self-interested, and even faithless because we are under the illusion that we have the power to make someone change. That power is God’s, not ours, and while we can choose how we treat others, we cannot choose for them. As one of my heroes, Lowell Bennion, used to say, quoting the Hindu saying, “to action alone hast thou a right, not to its fruits.”
I have learned, in whatsoever state I am, therewith to be content. I know both how to be abased, and I know how to abound: every where and in all things I am instructed both to be full and to be hungry, both to abound and to suffer need. I can do all things through Christ which strengtheneth me. (Philipians 4:11-13)
Paul seems to be describing a state of mind in which he can experience worry, he can feel the need for action, for change, at the same time that he can feel utterly content with the way things are. I think this is what Kierkegaard means by “Whoever has learned to be anxious in the right way has learned the ultimate.” This, of course, doesn’t make much logical sense. And it certainly goes beyond our understanding. And yet either position without the other is unchristian. It is unchristian to accept the world and all the choices others make and watch with utter indifference even as people do wrong and as evil flourishes. And yet it is also unchristian to believe that we have the power to change lives, minds, and hearts. We can and should strive to make the world a better place—we cannot imagine that mere passivity is Christian and certainly no good community comes from such—but we must also learn to feel abundance and see reasons for gratitude and to trust in the higher purposes of conflict, difference, and disappointment. Otherwise we will drive ourselves faster than we are able to run and our love will stumble into a state of over anxiety. Love isn’t just concern for the welfare of others and a fierce determination to change the world. It is also the capacity to endure and bear with the world, to allow for the agency of others and for the unseen purposes of God to unfold. That is surely more than I can do. But I believe, with Paul, that all things are possible with Christ.