Saturday, February 19, 2011

Anxious in America

I’ve been thinking about what gets in the way of generous giving, of hospitality, of other spiritual practices, and I keep coming back to the idea of anxiety.

I was struck, when I began in youth ministry, at the level of anxiety among kids: school anxiety, social anxiety, worry about going away on retreats without knowing exactly who would be there, exactly what would happen. Each year that anxiety seemed greater in the new sixth graders arriving, while the level of parental anxiety also seemed to grow in ways that seemed perplexing.

Last year our local youth network hosted an area therapist specializing in teens, and I wasn't surprised when she said that anxiety is the most significant mental health challenge she currently addresses. In fact, just google “anxiety epidemic”. It seems there’s general agreement that 21st century America is the most anxiety-driven culture ever, with each generation of teens demonstrating greater levels of anxiety.

Here’s a summary from an ABC report just over a year ago:

“According to researchers, psychological problems among teens have been on the rise since the 1930s, and Americans' obsession with material gains and success may be to blame.
"We have become a culture that focuses more on material things and less on relationships," said lead researcher Jean Twenge, author of "Generation Me" and an associate professor of psychology at San Diego State University. Twenge said this focus is affecting mental health on a societal level. …
Drawing on self-reports from widely used psychological surveys, including the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory, researchers found that over time, more and more students are reporting symptoms of mental illness.
Eight-five percent of college students today fall above the average mental illness "score" of students in the 1930s and 1940s.
Students today report they feel significantly more isolated, misunderstood, and emotionally sensitive or unstable than in decades past. Teens were also more likely to be narcissistic, have low self-control, and express feelings of worry, sadness, and dissatisfaction with life.
Although self-reported symptoms would not be enough to diagnose mental illness in these populations, the authors suggest that changes in students' responses over time suggest a real change in mental health levels.
"These results suggest that as American culture has increasingly valued extrinsic and self-centered goals such as money and status, while increasingly devaluing community, affiliation, and finding meaning in life, the mental health of American youth has suffered.”

Walter Brueggemann, theologian and professor of Old Testament, and auther of some of the most challenging books I’ve read in the past year, has been discussing anxiety and culture for decades. In his most recent books, The Journey to the Common Good and Out of Babylon, he describes two competing kingdoms.

The “pharoic” kingdom, “Babylon”, is a place of policy rooted in nightmare, anxiety caused by fear of scarcity, no time or energy left for the common good. Economic exploitation is essential; suffering is inevitable.

“Sinai,” on the other hand, the “prophetic” kingdom, depends on God’s abundant provision, and demonstrates generosity, divine abundance, feasting, Sabbath rest from work. Deep trust in God’s goodness replaces epidemic anxiety.

Worldy wisdom, might and wealth are the “royal triad” of Babylon. God opposes these with his own triad of steadfast love, justice and righteousness. As Brueggemann notes: “One is a triad of death, and the other is a triad of life.”

Brueggemann is outspoken in his criticism of multinational corporations and what he calls “the national security state.”  Both depend for their survival on our anxiety: we need more and more weapons and products to protect us from assailants eager for our destruction and to fend off the dangers of modern life (balding, boredom, last-year’s styles). We are schooled in dissatisfaction, trained to mistrust those around us, sold an attitude of discontent, disparagement, and competition. No wonder kids are anxious. There is no safe place. The distant threat of holocaust is balanced by the immediate threat of strangers, and at every turn, in every context, someone is better, faster, has more of the right stuff. In Babylon, no one wins.

Is this new? Not really. As Brueggemann demonstrates, Babylon and Sinai have been in opposition since the days of Moses, through the days of the prophets, through the time of Christ, and on into the present day.

What may be new is how insidious, how inescapable, how monolithic the message of Babylon has become. As kids are more and more attuned to their culture, tied to it night and day through cell phones, ipods, netbooks, it becomes harder and harder to hear another voice. And even adults, listening to the nightly news, drawn in by party rhetoric and alarmist headlines, find it hard to believe in the kingdom of God, when the kingdom of this world is so starkly, unavoidably present.   

How to escape? Brueggemainn would argue that the first step is the prophetic voice, pointing to the reality we live in. But today, as always, we dismiss the voice that’s outside our current mental construct. In a highly politicized world, prophets are hard to hear.

Hear, then, the words that come across the ages, Jesus’ words from the sermon on the mount, in Matthew 6:

Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moths and vermin destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moths and vermin do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

The eye is the lamp of the body. If your eyes are healthy, your whole body will be full of light. But if your eyes are unhealthy, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light within you is darkness, how great is that darkness!
No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money.

Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes? Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life?

 And why do you worry about clothes? See how the flowers of the field grow. They do not labor or spin.  Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these. If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith? So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.  Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.

Yes, very familiar. We’ve heard that before. Easier said than done.

As we’ve recently seen, though, revolution starts in small, symbolic acts, and every act of defiance of the current regime encourages others to join the cause. Would it help to think in terms of defiance? Of opposing the regime? What does it mean to be an agent of the kingdom of God, in nonviolent resistance to the kingdom of this world? 

For me, these are small acts of defiance:

“Store up for yourselves treasures in heaven.”  Give generously. Give first, then budget what’s left.

“Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth.” Try not to think about more “stuff.” Refuse to judge or be judged by material measures.

“The eye is the lamp of the body”. Limit media viewing: not just what, but how much. One or two tv shows a week, one or two movies. Devote the rest of the time to books, conversation, adventures outside.

"And why do you worry about clothes?" In an appearance-dominated culture, this is an area where I take defiance seriously. I choose not to dye my hair, spend hours on manicures, or wander in clothing stores unless I need to replace something.

I find, though, that one of the quickest ways to escape the claims of the culture around me is to fill my mind with the claims of Christ. Daily time in scripture and prayer is essential for the transforming of my mind, to bring anxiety under control, to remind me of where true power comes from.

Memorizing scripture is another route out of Babylon. With God’s word fresh inside me, I can hear much more clearly the words that don’t measure up, the lies that try to lead me into fear, or sell me things that will never satisfy. We’re told: "Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind." Memorization is one of the best tools I’ve found for allowing this kind of inner transformation.   

Brueggemann talks about neighborliness and community as paths into experience of God’s kingdom. I find this to be true, and am often stunned to see how much God has to show me through people who have seen God’s faithfulness in contexts far different from my own.

At every turn, obedience is the hardest, but most important means of stepping from the kingdom of this world into deeper experience of the kingdom of God. Jesus said “follow me.” Every step that brings me into closer alignment with his heart, his values, his kindness, grace, compassion, and welcome yields unexpected joy, peace, energy, insight. Obedience is inevitably the path to the abundance promised. Anxiety threatens each step of obedience, but with each courageous step, anxiety loses power, and before long, God’s peace sweeps anxiety away.

Please join the conversation. Your thoughts and experiences in this are welcome. Look for the "__ comments" link below to leave your comments.