Sunday, February 27, 2011

The Age of Anxiety

J. Barry Vaughn. St. Alban's Episcopal Church. Birmingham, AL. Feb. 28, 2011.

Historian Johan Huizinga in his study of the late Middle Ages wrote, “We, at the present day, can hardly understand the keenness with which a fur coat, a good fire on the hearth, a soft bed, a glass of wine, were formerly enjoyed.” Huizinga’s point is that these are all things that we take for granted: a warm coat, a fire in the fireplace (or for most of us, central heat and air), a glass of wine – in our time these things are the rule, not the exception. We take them for granted. But it was not so for most people throughout most of history, nor is it so for a good two fifths or more of the people in our world today. A warm coat, a warm and dry place to live, enough to eat, much less a glass of wine are the exception, not the rule.

Throughout most of history and in much of the world Jesus’ words in today’s gospel reading have a special resonance: “Do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear.” Worrying about having anything to eat and anything to wear is the norm, much less worrying about having a glass of wine or a fur coat.

We enjoy riches and conveniences undreamed of by the richest and most powerful people of human history. On a trip to Israel years ago I wandered through the ruins of one of Herod the Great’s palaces. He had several. The one I was wandering through was just east of the line of hills that divides Israel and Palestine from north to south and just west of Jericho. What was so remarkable about this palace is that it contained several baths. One bath was for hot water; one for lukewarm water; and one for cool or cold water. In first century Palestine, only the smallest handful of the rich and powerful could enjoy such luxury. Today only the smallest handful of people in this country do not enjoy such luxury.

So we would think that the vast expansion of wealth that has taken place over the last few hundred years and especially in the last century would have brought with it a corresponding expansion of happiness and contentment. But we know that it has not.

The poet W.H. Auden called the 20th century the “age of anxiety.” It was supposed to be anything but an age of anxiety. Increasing prosperity was supposed to bring increasing contentment and happiness. We were supposed to be the most contented and least anxious people in the history of the human race. But that has not happened.

We live not only in the age of anxiety but in the age of Prozac and Paxil and psychotherapy. Probably even more than a first century peasant we need to hear the words of Jesus: “Do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear,” because we worry about these and similar things constantly.

Jesus’ words are echoed by other great spiritual teachers throughout history. Five hundred years before the time of Jesus, the great Indian religious leader, Prince Siddhartha, whom we know today as the Buddha, the enlightened or awakened one, told his followers that the central problem of human life is suffering and that suffering is caused by being attached to things that are transitory.

Jesus said, “No one can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.”

The odd thing about serving wealth is that it can be very rewarding. Those who throw themselves heart and soul into the acquisition of wealth very often amass great fortunes. But wealth is a harsh mistress. No matter how much people acquire, they rarely seem to have enough. The person who sets her mind to acquire a million dollars in her bank account by the time she is thirty often succeeds, but then she is likely to decide to acquire another million or two by the time she is forty. Furthermore, the service of wealth often leaves very little time for the things that genuinely make life worthwhile: friends and family, work that matters, the enjoyment of art, beauty, and nature, to say nothing of the service of God.

I wonder if you have seen Social Network, the film about the creation of FaceBook that is up for the Academy award for Best Picture. I have no idea how accurate the film is but the story it tells is as old as the human race. The founder of FaceBook is presented as a deeply insecure college student. Rejected by a young woman he has been dating, he throws himself into the creation of an internet-based program that will allow people to connect with each other and so FaceBook is born. The irony of the film, though, is that while the purpose of FaceBook is to connect people with each other, a purpose it fulfills admirably, the founder of FaceBook is presented as a profoundly lonely young man, and by the end of the film he is fabulously wealth but is alienated from every single person in his life. “You cannot serve two masters, for you will hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to one and despise the other.”

Jesus’ words sound hopelessly idealistic: “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? And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these.”

OK, Jesus, that’s all very well and good, but you didn’t have a monthly credit card bill or mortgage payment, you didn’t have to pay college tuition or medical bills. If we don’t take some thought for what we eat or what we wear, where we sleep or how we’re going to get to work, then pretty soon we’ll have nothing to do but daydream about the lilies of the field and birds of the air.

But the irony, of course, is that if all we do is think about what we’re going to wear or eat, or where we’re going to live, then that drains life of all its meaning. So how do we do both? How do we take some thought for our food and clothing and at the same time trust God? Is it possibly to be both responsible and idealistic? I think it is.

Another insight from the Buddhist faith helps me. Buddhism teaches its adherents that they must live neither in the past nor the future but in the present. The present is all that is real. Taken to an extreme, that would be ridiculous. Of course, we must take some thought for tomorrow and be cognizant of the lessons of the past. But what we must not do is let the past empty today of its meaning. And we must not be so caught up in what might happen tomorrow, that we let the glory of this moment slip away.

The story is told of an order of monks so strict that they not only did not speak to women, they did not even look at women. Two monks from the community were sent on a mission to another monastic community nearby. They came to the edge of river, but it was in the spring and the rains had swollen the river, making it almost impossible to cross. Trying to cross the river was a woman with a new born child, but the river was too deep and fast for her to cross. However, one of the monks, violating the rule of his community, carried the woman and her child across on his back. For the rest of the day, the other monk was so angry at his brother for having violated their rule about women, that he would not speak to him. Finally, at the end of the day, the monk who had carried the woman across the river said to his brother, “Brother, you are angry at me for having carried that woman and her child across the river, but I only carried them across the river. You have carried them around with you all day.”

We carry things around with us all the time that we need to leave behind: our anxiety about money, about work, about the state of the world. “Do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. …Can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? …do not worry, saying, `What will we eat?' or `What will we drink?' or `What will we wear?' …your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.”