The Age of Anxiety

In a time of unexpected stress, part of the solution is simply being a good listener

I’m in my mid-forties and like most people my age, I grew up loving superheroes - the mighty ones and the cute, unlikely ones. Saturday morning cartoons were a treat and I looked forward to Underdog and Mighty Mouse. After school, I filled my hours with snacks as well as He-Man, She-Ra, and Thunder Cats. The message of all these heroes was plain and simple, “Never Fear!” It’s ironic to me that most of us grew up with this message but more often than not, the only thing I note about many in my age bracket is their extreme level of anxiety and fear. 

I’m not judging anyone. I struggled with anxiety mightily over the past couple of years. Through several interventions, I’m happy and thankful to say I’ve overcome anxiety and it no longer controls me. Perhaps because I lived in that space for so long, it’s easy for me to recognize it in others. I notice so many people starting conversations with, “I’m terrified that…” or “I’m fearful of…” or “It’s so scary that…”. I don’t know about your faith or sensibilities but my faith background teaches me that a person will become what they think about. It concerns me that so many people live in fear or conduct their life from that space. I wonder how effective one can be raising a family, holding a career, or maintaining any meaningful relationship when they are constantly afraid.

One might say current events are to blame and once COVID and the November elections are over, people will calm down and feel confident again. I’m not so sure. I started to observe this about my co-workers and friends long ago. I really noticed this behavior around September 11, 2001. That’s when the 24-hour news cycle really became part of our everyday lives. Suddenly there were crawls along the bottom of our screens and hourly breaking news reports. The internet then ushered in access to news at our fingertips and social media only added to our constant awareness of world events as well as everyone’s opinions about them. Honestly, what good has come from being so informed?

During my quest to put anxiety in its proper place, I have discovered that language and mindset have played a huge role in my success. For instance, instead of saying, “My husband and I fought over whether or not to let the kids go to such and such activity because of COVID”, I say, “We had the opportunity to discuss our plan for the kids’ activities this week.” Do you see the difference? By no means are all of our conversations conflict free but at the end of the day, seeing them as opportunities instead of negative interactions has changed the climate of our home. 

I have had the opportunity to mentor dozens of homeschool families over the years. In the past few months, my ministry of mentoring has grown ten-fold. This is another area where I observe fear and hear the words: “terrified”, “frightened”, “freaked out”, and “scared”. I certainly remember my first days of homeschooling and feeling anxious or worried about providing a good education for my kids but I can’t say the word “terrified” ever came from my mouth. Because let’s be honest, it’s not an appropriate response to educating a child. Being terrified is the appropriate response to witnessing a shark attack or a horrible car accident. Even if the person is using hyperbole, words have power and we become our words.

I’m not sure what all the answers are for people who are experiencing the intense fear and anxiety of today’s world. We’ve not experienced a pandemic in our lifetime so it’s natural to be knocked off of our feet a little. I know the things that worked for me personally, but they may not work for everyone else. Here’s what I have observed (even as recently as yesterday): The care and community of a neighbor sitting for one hour listening without judgement relieves more anxiety for a person than any amount of research, debate, life-proofing, or policy making. It’s time between two human beings who simply care and want the best for one another that makes the biggest dent in the fear factor. 

I’m not going to lie. I still secretly watch cartoons from time to time and like every little kid, I would love every Marvel hero to somehow land on our cities of unrest and restore peace and justice. I’d love for Mighty Mouse to swing into the picture and save the day. But that’s not happening. And, the prescription for the fear factor and the anxiety that is gripping our nation is simple. It’s not solving a world economy’s woes or finding a vaccine, it’s sitting and listening. It’s something every person can do. 

The quarantine caused us to change a lot about the way our family lives. We spend so much more time at home and we host more friends than we ever have, but we sit outside. When the whole thing started I used one of my grocery outtings to purchase two plastic Adirondack chairs. I placed them in my yard with a small table and a pot of flowers. I secretly placed them away from the house to get some distance between me and the kids but they have become a safe haven for the conversations that are desperately needed.  During this time, some of the best and some of the hardest conversations have taken place in those chairs. These simple tools of hospitality have become the salve for people’s souls. The solution for the fear and anxiety is not a superhero in a cape but an average person sitting in an average chair conversing and listening. Listening to understand, not to respond. Simply sit and listen.