Day by Day: On Anxiety, Depression and Hope

34 “So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today.”
–Matthew 6:34 (NRSV)

I’ve been reflecting on these words recently, spoken by Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew today. I will share my musings in the hope that they bring some peace and hope to you as well.

Do Not Worry: Imperative Or Suggestive

The scriptures are full of commands not to worry, or to fear. As someone who has lived with generalized anxiety all my life, this has always struck me as quite unhelpful. As anyone whose ever had a panic attack or anxiety meltdown knows being told to “calm down” or “not worry” is one of the least helpful things that can be said during such times.

Yet the scriptures repeat this so often that it would be foolish to dismiss it out of hand. After years of wrestling with this oft-repeated admonishment, I’ve come to two main conclusions. The first is that ditching the emotion, or feeling, of fear, anxiety, etc. is not what Jesus was preaching. The reason for that is twofold. We know that fear and anxiety are emotions that are hardwired into us as humans–they were necessary for survival and have benefits in emergency situations today. Ditching them altogether is not something the God who loves us, who created us, and who values life would endorse. The second is that, whatever Jesus and God mean when they say these things, they are ideals to aim for, not automatic condemnations if we fall short of. This is true for many of the imperatives in scripture, but is especially important to be clear on with this admonishment–as it has all too often been used by church leaders as a way of minimizing the struggles of, or even adding to the struggles of, those with mental health challenges. THAT can’t be allowed to continue.

What Then?

Now, if this commandment not to worry is an ideal to aim for, what exactly is that ideal if not to ditch the emotion of worry? Let’s look at verse 34 in its larger context:

25 “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink,[j] or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? 26 Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? 27 And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life?[k] 28 And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, 29 yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. 30 But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith? 31 Therefore do not worry, saying, ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear?’ 32 For it is the Gentiles who strive for all these things; and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. 33 But strive first for the kingdom of God[l] and his[m] righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.

34 “So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today.
Matthew 6: 25-34 (NRSV)

One thing that strikes me most about these this passage is that the worries are future-focused. This is super-important because, anxiety and depression are both fundamentally about the future.

Let’s start with anxiety. The biggest source of anxiety, in my life at least is when I am worrying about what I have said or done in the past, or what I will say or do in the future. While I get anxious about the things in the past, the true peril comes when those past actions fuel and exacerbate my worries of the future.

Similarly, with depression, the problem comes in forecasting the future. I will beat myself up over things I’ve done or failed to do, words I’ve spoken or shouldn’t have spoken, in the past; I will look at where I am in the present—but it is when I turn towards the future and am unable to imagine a flourishing future, a purposeful future, where all the pain and suffering I experience now and in the past actually mean something, that I am drowned in depression and despair.

My contention then, is this: that Jesus, like many great teachers through the ages, was speaking to the benefits of focusing on the present moment. Each day has its own challenges and sometimes we’ll face them head on and lick ’em, other times we’ll fall down and get bloodied and bruised; the key is facing each new day resolved to do the best we can, whatever the previous days brought or the coming days will bring.

Yet we cannot leave it there, for the Christian message is ultimately about more than just living in the moment. If we just focus on the moment, exclusively, it’s all too easy to adopt the philosophy that Paul strongly condemned, of “tonight we eat and drink, for tomorrow we may die”. The other pieces of what Jesus commends are faith and hope.

By faith, I do not mean a set of intellectual beliefs. Rather, it is more in the sense of being faithful to, not in,–perhaps fidelity or trust would be better concepts to encompass the true meaning of faith as it appears in the scriptures. In the verses in Matthew 6, a key peace is in being faithful to God, trusting in God’s guidance and provision. The caution here is that God wants partners, not slaves; blindfully and willfully being negligent of practical concerns is a gamble that puts God to to the test, which God may tolerate every once in a while, but is not to be relied on. Human effort and action, empowered, supported, and guided by God, is the name of the game.

Hope, is also a key piece to this puzzle. To start each day with resolve, and to be faithful to God, one must choose to hope for a better future. All too often in today’s discourse, hope is seen as an emotion, or conflated with optimism and dismissed. While hope is indeed partly an emotion, it need not be–a larger, and more resilient hope, is a recognition that the present is not as it should be and an active choice to work towards a future that is as it should be.

Addendum

I have been having a rough-go of it of late. The ongoing pandemic and the current lockdown in Ontario have me struggling with high stress and low mood much more than I’d care to admit. I’m wrestling with loneliness, especially romantic loneliness, as I’m aware of my 30th birthday drawing nearer and nearer; I’m wrestling with questions of finance and income and purpose–how to establish a proper work/life balance that works for me, how to find a more stable living situation on limited income, where I want to devote my time and efforts; and I’m wrestling with questions of worthiness, wondering whether I am worthy of love, whether I will ever be able to meet a partner on equal grounds, what life is worth without love, and whether I’m more of a drain or harm to my friends and family than a source of light and life.

Yet every night, I go to bed, I am determined to put the worries, fears, doubts, and failings of that day aside and get some rest. Every day, I wake up, and resolve to do the best that I can that day, trust in the Spirit to guide, strengthen and empower me, and hope for a better time to come.

I am glad to share that today I woke up feeling a higher mood than usual of late, and while I don’t know how long that higher mood will last, it is indeed enough for today.

Amen.

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Published by Devin Hogg

My name is Devin Hogg. I was born and raised in Carnarvon, Ontario, Canada. I moved to Guelph, Ontario, Canada in 2009 for university and lived here ever since. In my free time, I enjoy reading, watching TV and movies, going on long walks, swimming, and practicing Chen style Tai Chi. I love to write poetry and blog regularly about topics such as mental health, sci-fi/fantasy series, faith, sexuality, and politics.

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