Hope in an uncertain world

I am scrutinizing the safety card again and watching the in-flight attendant point ‘penguin like’ to the exits that I had already noted on the way in. It’s not that I am afraid of flying; it’s just that safety information is a worrier’s drug and a virtuous one at that. I look on my fellow passenger, already snoozing, with a haughty distain. “Don’t you come asking me how to, ‘double wrap and bow’ your life jacket if the need arises,” I say in my head. But then, with a little envy in my heart, I wonder why I am not asleep? Why does this familiar information, feel all too important to me?

Statistically life has never been safer but our experience of anxiety has never been greater. Worry is at epidemic levels with 7 million anti-anxiety prescriptions offered on the NHS last year in the UK and approximately 40 million American adults aged 18 and older with an anxiety disorder. You would assume that vastly improved healthcare, education, public safety and national security would reduce our propensity towards fear but that certainly isn’t the case.

Alongside greater opportunity comes greater expectation and within each generation, regardless of the social or financial climate of the period, the pressure to deliver on expectation mounts. Of course the stereo-type is to suggest that it is familial pressure that is driving this overbearing expectation. Instead it is mostly self-perpetuated, fuelled in part by new media’s ability to bring comparison making to a previously unimagined height.

Our fundamental relationship with worry has not changed. The most primitive response to fear is escape and we continue to do this in spades. Not physically running away, but by attempting to undo the conundrum that we have imagined: The work colleague we fear dislikes us, the darkening mole on a shoulder, the sense that we are in the wrong job. Google is the new back door that we can run through, comforted by the shared experiences of others or terrified by the search result that confirms we do have Bubonic Plague. If anything can be held responsible for the heightening of anxiety in our lives it is a fundamental shift in our relationship to uncertainty.

Uncertain Phobia is a term appearing with increasing frequency on the net and within our experience at Mindandsoul.info. It is evident that whilst information is available on an unprecedented scale, people’s threshold for ‘not knowing’ has fallen considerably. Consider the art of weather forecasting. One hundred years ago a farmer would lick his finger, hold it in the air and tell you where the wind was coming from and if his guts predicted rain for the afternoon. Now satellite technology and data modelling can give you an accurate picture of the weather up to 15 days in advance at any location on the planet.

The availability of this knowledge coupled by our instinct to mitigate risk is stealing our ability to rest in uncertainty. Society is increasingly self-reliant; trust in the institutions that support our safety has been eroded by events like the Parliamentary Expenses Scandal, the banking crisis and Wikileaks. Many younger people identify with Ralph Waldo Emerson when he said in his book ‘Self Reliance’, “I am ashamed to think how easily we capitulate to badges and names, to large societies and dead institutions.” Of course the result of the undermining of trust is build a culture of the book; ‘Self-Reliant’. In our estimation however, the quest for greater self-reliance is the fuel of an anxious individual.

Worry can never be overcome by gathering more information to mitigate the threats that life poses. Our uncertainty is unquenchable: To try and sate it is merely to create more possibilities and more anxieties. More than that, we believe that humanity has been created for interdependence not for self-reliance and behind this beautiful design is a loving and relational God who can be trusted. Oprah Winfrey has said, “The biggest adventure you can ever take is to live the life of your dreams.” However, through our work in emotional health we are seeing an increasing number of people who are only living their life ‘in their dreams’.

The power of anxiety and the to drive to eradicate uncertainty have literally stolen life’s adventure. This is of course a direct contrast to the promise of Jesus who said, “I have come to give you life and life in all its fullness.” (John 10:10). The Christian life is not about resolving every uncertainty; it is about really living despite our uncertainty. It does not take the uncertainty out of life; it takes life out of the uncertainty. The Christian life proposes that we can have certainty in the things that are truly important; in our relationship with God, in our value as people and in our eternal future. Everything else is adventure to be enjoyed together. As the great reformer Martin Luther said, “Pray and let God worry.”
Will Van Der Hart, 14/10/2013