Framing Anxiety

Anxious feelings pervade our lives these days. The impending climate catastrophes, the horrors of Putin’s war on the people and land of Ukraine, the Trumpists’ efforts to destroy our republic in the name of “saving” it, the inflation at the pump and in the grocery aisle.

Anxiety in our stomachs and in our adrenal glands, sits like a ghost of hopes dashed by waves of history we didn’t see coming. We were riding high on the promises of progress, evolution, and technology. We thought that if we could only expand the sphere of democracy and choice we would choose the good or that the good was in our power. But it wasn’t and isn’t.

And so anxiety returns, not just as a miasma of our time but as the existential reality that has always been at the heart of being human, of facing an unknown future. What is it?

It is always more than the fear that has a name and an object. It is a looming unnameable shadow that cannot be tamed by our purposes or understanding. It lies in that sinking feeling in the pit of our stomach that feels like the mythic original Fall of all humanity. Sometimes it arises in our dreams and nightmares as our deep consciousness tries to name it, wrestle with it, and take on the scars it seeks to inflict on our waking lives.

More than the loss of agency we feel in rage, it is an emptiness in face of the unknown.  That is why some theologians, like Paul Tillich, put it at the core of their understanding of the human before God. Sometimes we English speakers turn to German and call it Angst, as if that would both grant it deeper meaning while objectifying it into another, more graspable world.

But anxiety is by nature ungraspable. It is the deep apprehension that we cannot deal with the next moment, the next day, the next year—the future as hostile emptiness, a black hole devouring all possible futures.

Because anxiety is precisely a chilling sense of inadequacy before the future, it is the preferred weapon for those who would rule over us, claiming that only they can relieve us of this terrible burden. They turn anxiety into fear, which they can project onto an enemy that can be defeated.

Rather than being intrinsic to the human condition, anxiety is projected onto an enemy force with distinct perpetrators—the ghostly Them—who can be cleared away for the sake of our security. The dictatorial savior is granted powers as extensive as the anxiety pervading our isolated lives. It is a power that always ends in ruin.

Manipulation of our anxiety is not the only ruinous path. We may also fabricate a tiny drama of cheerfulness around us. We can be more than nice, a smiley face on legs. We can even find a world that looks like nice, whether on the screen, the cruise ship, the casino, or the amusement park.

We can create a world of make-believe to hide the anxiety from ourselves. We all resort to these crutches for the soul. But they cannot rebuild our legs so we can walk into an uncertain future with some sense of equanimity.

What then do the sages of the human spirit recommend? Wherefrom can spring an equanimity in the face of the future’s intrinsic unpredictability and menace?

Appeals to God’s justice or loving purpose for all of creation threatens every inequality by which the richer world survives, thus dissolving the very props by which we seek to fend off our anxious feelings. Neither can an ethical hope slay this dragon, for appeals to hope itself may only intensify a preoccupation with the untameable future.

Even the vision of a benevolent Jesus or Mary filling our future frame still holds us captive to the breathlessness that threatens our very life. A coming Messiah still is swallowed up in the cloud of anxiety itself.

We have, though, the claims of the Now, whether in Jesus’s famous admonition to live like the resplendent lilies of the field (Matt. 6:25-34) or the mindful meditation of our Buddhist teachers. Being present in the moment, including the anxiety that may pervade that moment can open us up to the Life that is seeking expression through us at every moment.

In that moment, release from death-filled anxiety comes in the tangible help we might extend to someone with desperate need for food, for shelter, for comfort in the face of death, for a way out of addiction, itself born so often of anxiety. It is this work of charity, of human connection, of love in the classic sense, that we can find release from anxiety’s black hole.

And then there is the tree. Though we humans have learned to live on ice and rock and treeless tundra, it is to the tree that we return, for it is from the trees that we arose, whose wood has framed our lives on land and water, that has heated our homes, and provided fruits for us to eat, leaves to nourish land in turn, from which the wild extravagance of nature’s bounty grows.

And in the tree’s steady, patient circles of annual renewal we find a framing for a life lived in anxiety about the next moment of uncertainty. And of course, there is more—in religious lore, artistic rendering, and even song. In clinging to the tree, even death on and in a tree, we find some harmony with ever resurgent life.

I find these days that the tree gives me a particular kind of immediate activity that transforms my anxiety into peace. For me, even more particularly, it is a turn to the material meditation of my woodcraft.

In reworking wood from death to new life as a useful or beautiful object, I find a focus on the moment that is life-giving. In this craft I find a little path to reframing my anxiety as the emptiness of a bowl whose lines and looks evoke receptiveness, acceptance, and a circle of renewal. In building a table I am drawn back into the meals that give shape to human life and the conviviality of a common world.

I would love to hear what is the “wood” in which you also find a way out from the anxiety that plagues our lives so deeply, especially in these times of loss.

Two chestnuts on the ground on top of old leaves

7 thoughts on “Framing Anxiety”

  1. Once again, thank you for your words, Bill. It seems every passing day offers some new anxiety -producing event. I think many of us who seek to find some sense of normalcy after two years of seclusion, are finding it difficult going forward because we seek to live a life of truth, and not just be “a smiley face on legs.” Thank you for reminding us that in extending charity to someone in need that we can help escape the black hole.
    This past week I was reminded of the soul-healing power of self- giving. I received a $20 refund from a purchase I had made , quite unexpected. As I was as leaving the shopping strip mall parking lot I saw a man, standing in the cold and rain with cardboard sign that read “need help.” A restaurant was about 50 yards from where the man was standing. I bought a coffee, a cookie and a gift card at the restaurant and took it to him. He greeted me with a smile and we briefly spoke. He said “God bless you… you are very kind… thank you.” This man had some obvious physical and mental impairments but displayed such kindness . It reminded me of a book that I read three decades ago” The Ragman and Other Cries Of Faith.” The practice of compassion and generosity in the here -and -now is transformative for all involved.
    And … about trees. I grew up in a farmhouse surrounded by Ash trees. I lovingly named our home place The Ash Grove . To this day when I visit the old home place, such a sense of calm and gratitude flood over me. I don’t get to “home” very often, but when I’m missing the stately trees that stand watch over my parents’ hopes and dreams realized , I take to my piano and play a lovely Welsh tune, originally known as” The Ash Grove.”
    As my family gathers together this Thanksgiving week , I will be playing this tune, as it is also know as the Thanksgiving hymn “Let All Things Now Living.”
    Blessings, Mary Beth Turner

  2. Thanks for lifting up Peter Wohlleben (“live well”!), who has done so much to help us grasp our deep connection with the forests that support all life.

  3. Dear Bill,
    I am entirely moved by your wonder-ful, nature-ful, creation-ful text which is so poetic and suggestive! It grasps the apocalyptic feelings we all are gripped by from time to time thinking we are the last generation. But then we remember that the people listening to Jesus felt like that, too, witness Luke 17 when they asked Jesus about the Kingdom of God. He answered it is right there among you overcoming all your anxieties and you should not continue your lives as if nothing matters. the Kingdom among you means repent and change your evil ways!
    Your friend of old, Gerd

  4. DearBill,
    my tree are the many trees in front of our windows. Living in the 4th floor of an old building of 1995 after climbing 95 steps on a wooden staircase we overlook the tops of many trees, mostly linden, chestnut and acacias, it’s a green sea. And extremely comforting and soothing within a part of Berlin which is very densely populated (Neukoelln).
    I listened to an essay on architecture in New York and the fight against the megalomia of Mayor Moses favoring the motorways fo cars rather than human living. but not one word about trees in the city not even about the need for parks and green oases, just only what makes human architecture.
    If we do not include non-human nature in our living that is the climate catastrophe. to call ist climate change is already falsifying the facts.
    Do you know the books on “the Hidden Nature of Trees” by Peter Wohlleben, bestsellers in Germany. But before that “the Germans and their woods” have been famous and notorios since Roman times. What happened to outdoors loving Americans? Why are streets not tree-lined in most inner cities – or am I mistaken? Manhattan has Central and Riverside Parks, but the summer is hell in Manhattan except for all too cold air conditioners and now too expensive to use because of energy costs.
    Of course, Waynesville is a wood paradise.
    Excuse my not so qualified impressions from a tree-loving Gerd

  5. Bill, I am so moved by this eloquent presentation of our condition — and a persuasive prescription for its healing. My “tree” is connecting with others, challenging as that can be these days. With much gratitude–

  6. Thank you, Bill, for speaking the truth about the anxieties we experience so strongly in these days. And thank you for drawing us to the tree. You name the heartache, and then lead us to the sheltering tree for hope. You invite us to the good ways of our connection in community. This is a beautiful and powerful word.

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