By: Matt Gordon
My wife gave birth to kids. Two boys brought into this world, but they did not enter alone. Both before them and after them, worry sauntered into my life. Before kids I had occasional anxious moments, but now with these fragile little beings I care more about everything—tame things now made dangerous around the house, every possibility of germ, my own misguided notions seeping into and damaging their developing psyches. With a generation beneath me—and the suggestion of ones tagging along under that one—I’m more fretful about money and legacy and suffering and dying well. For me, children have raised the stakes. These stakes have tickled awake cackling worries.
We all worry. It is a shared experience, and, mostly, a pointless one. If I dedicated the time I spend worrying to action, to learning, even to sleeping, I’d have far less to worry about—that’s for sure. But somehow the logic is betrayed; I worry on.
The trap of worry is simple. When we worry and nothing bad comes to fruition, we attribute the positive results to our vigilant worry. Good thing I cared enough about that to worry it away, we think. Wrongly. When we worry and negative outcomes find us, we say, “See! I was right to worry! I knew this would happen!”
But we didn’t actually know what would happen, did we? It is like a Nostradamus prediction about a building falling at some point in the future. Well, he was right. Because buildings fall! Here, I’ll make some startling predictions right here, right now, free of charge:
-A ruler will emerge . . .
-The storm will destroy . . .
-The market will crash . . .
-A sign will be seen in the sky . . .
-Darkness will fall . . .
-A light will shine . . .
Okay, I can go on all day with this. It is kind of fun, really. I know I am right! But that doesn’t mean I’m informed. I don’t know the details, and even if I did, if a thing is inevitable what good does predicting it do? Much less worrying about it.
This is how we live though. We predict little things in our lives—some of which are inevitable and some are just guesses. And then we fret over our predictions: I’m going to lose my job; I’m going to get sick; I’m going to die; My kids are going to go wrong; etc. What we end up with is a bunch of things that are out of our control and other things that are cognitive distortions we can fight against rather than worry about.
Cognitive distortions are often what lead to worry. These are bad thinking patterns we fall prey to and they shape our behaviors, our reactions, and our relationships. Here are a few of these and an example for each:
All-or-nothing thinking: “If I don’t get this job, my life is over.”
Overgeneralization: “My relationship fell apart. I’m meant to be alone.”
Negative focus: “I messed up that one sentence in the presentation. It was a disaster.”
Feelings as truth: “I feel alone. Everyone hates me.”
There are many of these, and they take us away from reality into our own distorted perceptions. They rob our joy, dilute our instincts, and clip the wings of wisdom.
Jesus subtly mentions this exact thing as a reason for unbelief in him and his cause. In the fourth chapter of Mark he is talking about the good news he is bringing. News that frees a person from her sin, from bondage to oppressive ideals, from the shackles of the culture and the world. This news is being heralded on the streets, yet many just shuffle past.
Several years ago, a London newspaper put a guy out on the street at a busy thoroughfare near Oxford Tube Station. He was holding a leaflet which offered five pounds—all a person had to do was take the leaflet, look at it, and trust it. If the person brought it back to him, he’d give that person the cash on the spot. In three hours only eleven people claimed the prize. Only eleven saw, absorbed, and accepted the good news on the leaflet.
Like that guy on the street, Jesus is explaining why so many people shuffle past the news, ignoring it or throwing it in a trash bin without reading it or reading it and not trusting it. He uses a farming analogy about seeds being planted—an example that would have fallen very much in the field of knowledge for his potential followers. He mentions hardship and persecution. He hints at the initial dopamine drop of something new that will fade. But he also highlights worry. Here it is in his recorded words:
“Still others, like seed thrown among thorns, hear the word, but the worries of this life, the deceitfulness of wealth and the desires for other things come in and choke the word, making it unfruitful.”
Worry, Jesus claims, keeps us from good news, good things. Do you agree?
I think about nights when I desperately need sleep, but I just cannot turn my mind off. I’m wrestling with all I have to do the next day or thinking of the struggles of another. Lying prostrate, I’m attempting to fix the world’s problems. All of them. And in so doing, I’m lying to myself. Because I cannot fix the world’s problems. In fact, from my place there in bed, I can’t fix a single thing save one: I can sleep away my tiredness. I can embrace the goodness of rest, being rejuvenated by it and more likely to do a bit of good the following day. But I don’t. I wrestle on into the night, thrashing about uselessly.
Jesus brings news that seems good. But I worry. I worry that he might not be all he says he is. I worry just as often that he may be precisely what he says he is. I worry that I might not agree with everything in the Bible. I worry that belief might estrange me from friends. I worry that I might be judged by believing in the supernatural. I worry that I might be lumped in with some of the others who follow—or pretend to follow—the way of Jesus. I worry I might not be good enough. I worry . . .
And the seed dies.
Maybe worry doesn’t kill all things, but it certainly doesn’t help them grow. Therefore combatting worry is a worthwhile pursuit. Here are a few ways you might be able to unhinge yourself from feckless worry:
- Allow yourself momentary worry.
For me, this is done at night. When I first lie in bed in an attempt to find sleep. I think about all the things I am worried about—my marriage, money, trials, friends, work, etc. And then I pray about each thing in turn. I pray for peace, for a release from control. I sleep.
2. Challenge your thinking.
When worry strikes, trace it. Where does it lead? Is the thinking behind the worry sound? Or is it the stuff of cognitive distortion? If your thinking is dramatically negative, challenge that and balance it with some positives. One exercise I’ve seen done well is to take worry and mock it. For instance, you are worried about your impending job interview because you aren’t great at interviews. So you keep thinking about all the things that can go wrong. Take fifteen minutes and write a narrative about the job interview, exaggerating every single negative thing that can happen. You’ll create some funny imagery, and see how very far-fetched your worry is. It is a fiction authored by your mind.
3. Ask: What would I say to someone else with this same worry?
Emotion can blind, and we tend to care most about ourselves and our family. It is good to care, but the depth of this care can create irrationality. Sometimes thinking for a friend or a stranger allows us to care just a bit less and reason just a bit more.
4. Distinguish if you are a pilot or a passenger.
Ever been on a plane with turbulence? You white-knuckle the armrest thinking of every bad outcome possible. But, it is likely, you are the passenger. And there is nothing you can do in this situation. Now, if you are the pilot, you better start talking in your headset, taking the controls, reading the instruments—something! In our daily lives there are all sorts of situations in which we are passengers, and there are a few each day in which we are pilots. For example, I am not responsible for the decisions my son makes in twenty years—I am a passenger. But I am the pilot when it comes to teaching him about character, eating vegetables, and not fake-crying or kicking his little brother in the head. When I am the pilot, I need to steward my responsibility well. When I am the passenger, I need to let go of the worry and accept the uncertainty.
Our worries will choke the seed of life. It will dismantle faith and make love difficult; it is a thief of joy and a taker of life.
My prayer is to worry less and to care more. To breathe and live and grow with the freedom of a passenger and the passion of a pilot.
After all, the prediction has been writ: A light will shine . . .