Worry du jour

Notwithstanding a piece someone posted the other day suggesting that worrying is a sign of intelligence, anxiety and worry can be such as wasteful distraction.  Worry about what might or might not happen prevents our being present to what is happening right now.

Jesus is quite explicit about the pointlessness of worry, in Luke admonishing us “Can any of you by worrying add a moment to your lifespan?”  Likewise, there is good sense in his admonition (in Matthew), “Do not worry about tomorrow; tomorrow will take care of itself.”

I confess that this is one of my weaknesses.  I can waste time worrying about the smallest things.  As I sat with this the other morning I realized that the problem with not letting go of worrying is that there is always something to worry about.  To take a couple of recent insignificant, but distracting worries:

Worry whether Elena will get into the summer program she auditioned for.  OK, she got in.  Then my worry can shift to whether she will get  the part she wanted.  Ok, she got the part. Then my worry can shift to whether she will get the acceptance and deposit in on time.  When that happens I can shift my worry to the hassle of getting a Euro check necessary for the second payment. Etc. etc.

Or, worry whether I will get all the necessary docuements to send to the guy who does our taxes.  OK got them and sent it off.  Then my worry can shift to whether he will get them.  OK, he gets them, now my worry can shift to whether I’ll get some other document after he prepares the tax statement.

I use these precisely because they are not life and death situations, but the kind of situations that are always there.  And unless we can let go of worry, it can become (to use the phrase a friend used with me the other day) – what is the “Anxiety du jour.”

Total waste of time.  As Jesus says, none of the wasted energy will have the slightest effect on anything.

And so I remind myself of he lilies of the field: “They do not toil or spin. But I tell you, not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of them.  If God so clothes the grass in the field that grows today and it thrown in the oven tomorrow, will he not much more provide for you.”

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Some Additional Helpful Commandments

For several reasons, this past week has been a very exhausting one, emotionally more so than physically, although three nights of speaking engagements following the weekend retreat I gave last weekend – with two more this weekend – has certainly taken a physical toll as well.

As I was exercising in my basement this morning, I happened to glance up at a bulletin board of Elena’s, one of the small posters on which was labeled The Other Ten Commandments. The poster indicated no source, but it wasn’t hard to locate them online (“author unknown”).

Several of them really spoke to me – not surprisingly, mostly the ones I’m guilty of violating. With the hope that they may say something that helpful to you, here they are:

Thou shall not worry, for worry is the most unproductive of all human activities.

Thou shall not be fearful, for most of the things we fear never come to pass.

Thou shall not cross bridges before you come to them, for no one yet has succeeded in accomplishing this.

Thou shall face each problem as it comes. You can only handle one at a time anyway.

Thou shall not take problems to bed with you, for they make very poor bedfellows.

Thou shall not borrow other people’s problems. They can better care for them than you can.

Thou shall not try to relive yesterday for good or ill, it is gone forever. Concentrate on what is happening in your life and be happy now!

Thou shall be a good listener, for only when you listen do you hear ideas different from your own. It is hard to learn something new when you are talking, and some people do know more than you do.

Thou shall not become “bogged down” by frustration, for 90% of it is rooted in self-pity and will only interfere with positive action.

Thou shall count thy blessings, remembering who they come from, and never overlook the small ones, for a lot of small blessings add up to a big one.

Blessings on your day.

Trouble Tree

Many of us find ourselves holding on to anxieties. Something doesn’t go right at work and several hours later, it is still on our mind while we’re sitting at the dinner table with our family. We go to the doctor for a test and the worry about it is in the back of our mind until we get the results, making it hard for us to fall asleep at night.

I’ve always loved the story of the plumber and his “trouble tree,” which offers one suggestion for dealing with those issues. I came across it again the other day and here it is:

I hired a plumber to help me restore an old farmhouse, and after he had just finished a rough first day on the job: a flat tire made him lose an hour of work, his electric drill quit and his ancient one ton truck refused to start.

While I drove him home, he sat in stony silence. On arriving, he invited me in to meet his family. As we walked toward the front door, he paused briefly at a small tree, touching the tips of the branches with both hands.

When opening the door he underwent an amazing transformation. His face was wreathed in smiles and he hugged his two small children and gave his wife a kiss.

Afterward he walked me to the car. We passed the tree and my curiosity got the better of me. I asked him about what I had seen him do earlier.

“Oh, that’s my trouble tree.” He replied “I know I can’t help having troubles on the job, but one thing’s for sure, those troubles don’t belong in the house with my wife and the children. So I just hang them up on the tree every night when I come home and ask God to take care of them. Then in the morning I pick them up again.”

“Funny thing is,” he smiled,” when I come out in the morning to pick ’em up, there aren’t nearly as many as I remember hanging up the night before.” (Author Unknown)

Anxiety vs. Trust

I was sitting last night and reflecting on yesterday’s Gospel passage from St. Luke. It was the short and familiar story of Martha and Mary when Jesus comes to their house for dinner. Martha, “burdened with much serving” comes to complain to Jesus that Mary is not helping her, but instead is sitting with Jesus. And Jesus responds, remonstrates Martha, telling her “you are anxious and worried with many things. There is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part and it will not be taken from her.”

We always talk about that passage as the juxtaposition of the active and the contemplative. Martha, running around doing all sorts of work activities, rather than sitting at Jesus feet like Mary. Read that way, it is difficult to really understand Jesus’ characterization of Mary as having chosen the better part, because we know that we need a union of the active and the contemplative.

When I read it last night, however, I heard Jesus’ words to Martha differently – really hearing him addressing her anxiety and worry. And when I really heard Jesus’ comment about Martha’s anxiety and worry, I saw the juxtaposition as, not about action vs. contemplation, but about anxiety and worry vs. trust. Martha has a ton of things preying on her mind, worrying her. Mary, however, has the ability to rest in Jesus, giving over to him whatever may be her cares and woes.

Read that way, it is far easier to understand Jesus’ comment that Mary has chosen the better part. To put all in the hands at Jesus, and to rest at his feet.

And so I sat with the simple prayer, Let me be more like Mary. Grow my trust in You.

Anxiety and Simple Prayer

Very few of us don’t have occasions of anxiety. Sometimes over big things, but often over quite small things. Things that won’t really affect our lives significantly. Things that will work themselves out if we just let them alone a bit. But still they create anxiety in us.

A natural response to that anxiety is prayer. Sometimes a little chat with God during such situations helps restore calm. Sometimes, however, we are so anxious – so caught up in our anxiety – that the words come too fast…or don’t come at all.

I was touched the other day by a status line on Facebook posted by my friend Elizabeth. She reported that she had been lying in a hotel bed sleepless, anxious about some job-related issue. With her permission, I share her beautiful approach to dealing with that anxiety:

To return to a state of gratitude and calm, I said a friend’s name, and then another, and felt a smile on my face; said another, and beamed with pleasure; and as I went through all of your names like a litany, found myself overcome with grace. Blessings, all.

As Elizabeth observed in her post: “How simple prayer can be.”

Breathing In, Breathing Out

We’re about to start a new law school semester. The week before classes start is always a stressful one for me, as I turn to making sure I’m ready for the first week of classes even as I continue to work on other ongoing projects. Since I’m ending a year-long research leave, this week seems particularly harried for me, as I get ready to return the class for first time since a year ago December. I was back from five days at St. Benedict’s Monastery no longer than an hour the other day before I started feeling overwhelmed at everything that has to be done – continued work on the books I’ve been writing this past year, preparation for a number of upcoming retreats and other programs I’m giving (including our law school vocation retreat this weekend), class preparation, financial aid applications for college for Elena, etc., etc. and so forth.

Focusing on my breath helps in those moments when I start to feel things spinning out of control. Inhale. Pause. Exhale. Pause. As I close my eyes and feel the breath coming in and the breath going out, I feel the calm seeping through my being, gently releasing the stress and anxiety. Breathe in. Breathe out.

In Living Buddha, Living Christ, Thich Nhat Hanh suggests watching the breath come in and out, reciting with each breath these lines, which he suggests repeating over and over:

Breathing in, I calm my body.
Breathing out, I smile.
Dwelling in the present moment,
I know this is a wonderful moment.

Very simple exercise, but a very effective one. Try it now and try to remember it when you are feeling stressed.

The Anxieties of Daily Life

Jesus warns his disciples in today’s Gospel not to let themselves be consumed by “carousing or drunkeness” or by “the anxieties of daily life.” It is the latter that seems to me to be the greater danger for most of us (although I admit that in my younger days there were periods when I spent far too many hours in an Irish bar carousing and drinking).

We worry about so many things. Our jobs if we are working. Our grades if we are in school. Our children. Our health. Our houses. (We woke up this morning yet again to the beeps that indicate some problem with the sump pump.) Things we want.

Most of the things we worry about have some importance. So the fact that we care about them is not a problem. But we can get so overwhelmed with anxiety, our minds so completely clouded in worry, that we lose sight of anything else. That we lose sight of God.

Although Jesus’ primary message in today’s Gospel (in our last day before the beginning of Advent) is vigilence, today’s Gospel is also a reminder to remember that we are not alone in any of the anxieties that we face and a reminder to periodically simply place those worries and anxieties in God’s hands. That doesn’t mean sitting back and expecting God to fix my sump pump without my calling the plumber, but it does mean not letting that and other things disturb my peace and knowledge of God’s presence.

Resting in God’s Peace

Like Martha in Luke’s Gospel, we worry and fret about so many things. Our minds race for hours on end and we often find ourselves full of anxiety. Worries about so many things, big and small cram our minds. It sometimes seems like our mind is nothing but a mass of anxieties.

And then something – the smile of a friend, the blueness of the sky, the rustle of the leaves of a tree, a piece of music – reminds us that there is something beyond the worry. That there is Someone who holds us and our worries in the palm of His hand. That we are not alone and that, whatever it is, we don’t have to face it all on our own. We’re reminded, and we are able to lift our heads above the suffocating anxieties and rest in God’s peace.

My friend Michael recently posted on Mirror of Justice a poem by Denise Levertov, Primary Wonders, that captures more eloquently than my words something of that peace of God that soothes our souls:

Days pass when I forget the mystery.
Problems insoluble and problems offering
their own ignored solutions
jostle for my attention, they crowd its antechamber
along with a host of diversions, my courtiers, wearing
their colored clothes; cap and bells
And then
once more the quiet mystery
is present to me, the throng’s clamor
recedes: the mystery
that there is anything, anything at all,
let alone cosmos, joy, memory, and everything,
rather than void: and that, O Lord,
Creator, Hallowed One, You still,
hour by hour sustain it.

Coincidentally, my friend Richard sent me a poem the other day by Wendell Berry that suggests a simple means of bringing ourselves back from the anxiety into God’s peace. In The Peace of Wild Things, Berry writes:

When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

Good material to pray with.