when worry suffocates

“At any moment, if attentive and open enough, we can drop into the fabric of existence in which everything, even pain, has this vivid signature of energy we call at various times, truth or beauty or peace.” — Mark Nepo

Except a grain of wheat falls to the earth and is buried, dead to the world, it is never more than a seed; but if buried, it reproduces itself many times over. So, anyone who holds onto life as it is, destroys that life. But if you let it go, reckless in your love, you’ll have life, real and eternal. — Jesus (John 12: 24-25, The Message)

I once heard someone describe their worry as a persistent, gnawing at their very existence — their life feeling consumed, piece by piece and moment by moment, till their life was not theirs but had become whatever it was they found worrisome. He said, “It would be like suddenly realizing, I am no longer worried about the outcome of my illness — I am my illness. Or like saying, ‘I am no longer worried about being jobless, I am an unemployable person who simply can’t get a job.”

Perhaps you know, or have known, this experience of worry, this fear of what we end up thinking is inevitable because we can’t get the outcome of our fear out of our minds. The etymology of the word “worry” comes from the Old English, meaning “to strangle, or suffocate.” So, it’s no surprise the damage and chaos worry can create in our lives. Worrying, at its neurological root, is really grounded in fear — our most basic, evolutionary instinct. We are afraid of losing something. We are afraid of not getting what is most important to us, what we most need — belonging, connection, purpose. In a very real sense, even our simplest worries and fears are rooted in our sense of mortality. Life is fragile and unexpected. No matter how much we plan for it, we cannot escape the reality of suffering, unexpected crises, unwanted changes.

The very essence of life’s cycle of death and renewal is at present to us in nature as we anxiously await the changing of the season as Fall slowly makes its presence known in the cooling temps and changing colors. Curiously, while in Northern Michigan last week, a bookstore employee in Petoskey told me, “Any day now, we’ll see death in all its splendor as the trees begin to shed their skin and their leaves begin to paint the landscape in brilliant hues of red, orange, and yellow before falling to the earth. You could say, death and dying never look more beautiful.”

It was strange to hear Fall Foliage expressed in such a way. It made me wonder about all my worries and fears, and even my anxiety about mortality. Of course, one of the first phrases that comes to mind for me as I think about the young bookstore employee’s description is that almost cliché bumper sticker I often see, “Let go. And let God.” And while there is so much emotional, maybe even defensive, meaning some associate with that phrase, there is something that, for many, also rings hollow or insubstantial about it. Is there some concrete way of beauty and deep peace that is available to us instead of worrying? Is there some path toward the experience of wonder and joy that can be found even at the very heart of mortal anxiety? And, if so, how do we tap into that rather than falling prey to the emotionally, and oftentimes physically, crippling experiences of worry and fear?

I hope you will give some thought to this and maybe even email me some of your worries or fears or “mortal anxieties.” Or bring them with you this Sunday to eleven:eleven as we explore clear paths to peace and the exquisite risk of life in the presence of anxiety and suffocating worry. The band will offer some help along the way with the songs of Bruce Hornsby, The Beatles, traditional Gospel, and Five for Fighting. And I’ll have a very special interview with some Penguins.

I hope to see you Sunday!


Rev. Tom McDermott
Associate Pastor of eleven:eleven

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