“Can Anxiety Be Mastered?”

By Rev. A. Powell Davies D.D.
January 29, 1950

There is one thing, at least, which anxious people will find plentiful, namely, advice. But the more they consider this advice, the more they will discover that the difficulty is not in giving it, but in taking it. “Anxiety does no good,” says the psychologist; “it lowers efficiency, dissipates energy, lessens the emotional force you need with which to face your problems. Therefore, get rid of it.” “Yes, indeed,” the anxious person replies, “there is nothing in the world I am more desirous to do; but how?” And at that point, unfortunately, the advisor seems to stutter a bit and lose his fluency. “What is the use,” you say, “of being told to stop being anxious, if you are not told how?” For if you had known how, you would not have needed to seek advice in the first place.

It reminds one of the patient, away back in the depression days, whose doctor told him that what he needed was a trip around the world. “Doctor,” the patient replied, “not only can I not afford a trip around the world, but I am wondering whether I can afford your fee for telling me to take one!”

Which, in turn, is no worse than the case of the minister who suggested curing anxiety by prayer. “Didn’t that do some good?” he asked, after praying with the anxious parishioner? “It may have done God some good,” the parishioner replied, “but me–I feel just about the same.”

It is not only the modern psychologists, however, who command us to stop being anxious; the ancient sages and the prophets of religion give the same advice. It is soothing, sometimes, to listen to the words in which they give it. “Be not anxious for your life; consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they toil not, neither do they spin;” or “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. He leadeth me beside the still waters. He restoreth my soul.” Such words as these, beautiful and consoling just in the very sound of them! And there are other such passages in the ancient philosophers, such s Marcus Aurelius or Epictetus.

But still, if we are entirely candid, we have to admit that the effect of listening to these words wears off. Perhaps it shouldn’t, but it does. We do not quite know what is transmitted by such words, or what resources they are intended to invoke. Perhaps what they mean is that we could all, if we wished, live a much simpler life. Possibly an entirely simple life, similar, for example, to that of St. Francis of Assisi. It is true, apparently, that St. Francis did live a simple life, a very simple life, and made a notable success of it.

Yet, it has to be admitted that most of us are not like St. Francis–not like him in the least; and furthermore, that in the modern world, this may in some respects be rather fortunate. Let us be honest. If everyone began behaving exactly as St. Francis did, say at 8 a.m. tomorrow, the result would be disastrous. Where would we be if St. Francis were President, or Secretary of State, or even an ordinary commuter–say to the Pentagon and back–riding, presumably, on a donkey. If he tried it on a Monday, I think the chances are much against his repeating the experiment on Tuesday. Even a saint would find a few things to say in favor of the convenience, if not the luxury, of the Capital Transit Company’s omnibuses–yes, music and all–though he might resent its interference with his meditation. For the modern world is the modern world and it is of no use pretending that it is something simpler.

The experiment in simple living has been tried, of course, in recent times, by the Mahatma Gandhi. He lived simply, wove his own cloth, ate frugally…we know the story. But he needed the telegraph and the newspaper, or how would his influence have been spread abroad? He may not always have read the news, but he certainly intended to make the news–and did it very successfully. Although his personal life was much simplified, he was nevertheless a part of a complicated, mechanized modern world, and remained this no matter what he did, and being a saint of considerable talent and perspicuity, he knew it. After all, Gandhi was once a lawyer, and a brilliant one, and therefore, he never forgot the jury–which, in this case, was the world, and he had to use modern methods for the world to hear him.

And–although I say this with deep respect to the Mahatma, whom I much admire–the modern world is and remains a very complicated world, which could not possibly be run by nothing but Gandhis. Probably he himself would have agreed to this–indeed, he might even have insisted upon it and stood aghast at the thought of a world entirely filled with Gandhis. Not many saints really want to see themselves mass-produced.

No, we have to take the modern world pretty much as it is, complexity and all. And we have to try to solve its problems–not abandon them. The literally simple life is not available.

Very well, then, what is available? Can anxiety be mastered? I think the answer depends in the first place upon what we mean by “mastered.” If we mean banished, then I think that for most people, it is expecting too much. Not that anxiety could not be completely done away with by the perfect application of the principles applying to it. The difficulty lies in achieving such a perfect application. Anyone who had liberated within himself the resources with which to do it would be so perfect in the first place that he would never have found anxiety a problem.

No, when we say “mastered,” I think we should be candid. I think we should define our expectation, and the area of application. We must leave out, for example, pathological forms of anxiety, such as anxiety neuroses. I know that normalcy shades off gradually into these abnormal states, but we have to imagine a line of demarcation somewhere. We must also forsake the hope of ever reaching perfect equanimity–on any basis. Most of us have to admit that our moods will change; and so will the circumstances to which they respond. We will be anxious sometimes, no matter what we do about it. We may not always have the sheer physical support for mental calm. We can get very tired, and overwrought. We can lose the wholesomeness that goes with health. When this takes place, we will be likely to be anxious.

In what sense, then, can we use the word, “mastered”? In the sense, I think, that we can speak of mastery of anything human–that is to say, it will be fallible and incomplete and liable to interruption. Just as we say that we have mastered the air and yet we have aeronautical accidents, or that we have mastered certain diseases, and yet people die because we cannot always cure them. All human mastery is incomplete. In this limited sense–a reasonable sense, and, I believe, a true one–we can relieve and master our anxieties. We can keep them under control; we can prevent them, for the most part, from using up too much of our energy, or greatly lowering our efficiency or dissipating our morale. How?

Let me try to give the answer, so far as I know it, in terms that are utterly practical. There are four principles or rules, which, taken together, will give us mastery over anxiety, at least a great deal of the time.

The first is: Face the realities. Nothing is so terrible when you face it as when you run away from it. Now, the first reality, and one which superficial sorts of religion try to mask or hide, is that of limited security. We live on a spinning ball, all but the outer crust of which is flame; we live on it subject to all its hazards and we always will: these include earthquake and hurricane, tornado and eruption, storm and avalanche, fire and flood. We live our physical lives within our own precarious bodies, subject to all the perils of disease, all the dangers of accident. We live our mental lives subject to all the chances of error, all the possibilities that reason itself may be unseated. Anything we have may at any time be taken away. When we rebel against misfortune and are bitter because of loss, we have forgotten that life has never given us any guarantees. In spite of all the title-deeds that fill the vaults of banks, not one of us securely owns a single thing. For a few short years with all their hazards, we have the use of them and that is all. There is nothing that we call our own which may not at any time be lost.

Yes, and in spite of all that we may do for our own security, and in spite of all that human society may add to this to make us safer–and I think human society should do its best–nevertheless safety and security will always be flimsy things, easily blown away. That is why the sages and the prophets are absolutely practical when they tell us not to depend upon material things. It is not just a question of whether it is right or wrong to do so; it is a question of whether it is intelligent. The plain fact is that material things are not dependable. It is therefore folly to depend upon them. To do so is to build a house upon sand. When the storm comes, it is likely to be washed away. The first reality, therefore, is the reality of limited security. We should all make friends with it, because it will be with us all our lives.

We must also face the realities in other ways, however. We must face the realities about ourselves. We must try to estimate our own capacities and abilities with candor. We must know our own deficiencies. We must bring everything to the surface and keep it there long enough to absorb it and base our judgements upon it. Just as many people never make their peace with the insecurity of the world they live in, so others never make their peace with their own real selves–what, nowadays, they call their personalities. Just what is any one of us entitled to, in this world? Just what do we deserve? Just what can we truly attain? How should we rate our claim?

I wish to tell you from my heart this morning, and with the utmost emphasis, that the sooner each one of us understands that nothing is owed to him, that all he has is just a gift that he cannot possibly establish a conclusive right to, the sooner will he find his soul at peace. Today there may be the blue sky and the green earth and the eyes that see them; today there is health and strength; today there are friends and loved ones; today there is a little happiness; let us take them today, for tomorrow we do not know. The present moment is the only moment we can live in. The past comes with us, it is true; and the future is before us, and we must aim our lives towards it; but they both meet in the swiftly moving present and they can never meet anywhere else. Let us accept this as a basic reality, for that is what it is. It does not mean living without memory. It does not mean ceasing to face the future constructively. Far from it. But it does mean that all the satisfactions of any sort that we have for ourselves are in the present and that the present as it exists at any given moment cannot be perpetual.

Of course, there is another side to this. The real is not merely rigorous and precarious. It is also often better than we think. Imagination is sometimes morbid. People allow themselves to be beset by fears that better understanding would soon prove slenderer or even groundless. Everyone knows, I suppose, the little verse of rhymed wisdom which runs as follows:

“As I was going up the stair,
I met a man who wasn’t there;
He wasn’t there again today–
O, how I wish he’d go away!”

A great many fears–anxious fears–fall into that category. They are based upon such things as other people’s opinions (often people whose opinions don’t count, anyway), on hypochondriac obsessions with imaginary illness, on a feeling of persecution, or neglect, on a far-off threat of poverty–on a hundred things of an infinitely varied sort, none of which is especially likely to be actual.

Discover the realities, then! Face the realities! You cannot live your life of ten years hence today. You cannot live your life of one year hence today. You cannot live your life of tomorrow today. But you can live today. And you will be happier if, for whatever belongs to yourself, you live with modest expectations, for whatever exceeds them is that much extra happiness. You have no claim–remember it always!–everything that comes to you comes of grace and bounty. Accept it joyfully but don’t clutch it too tightly. Face the realities. Develop a clear recognition of life’s natural adventurousness and make the most of it.

The second principle is: Be energetic about the possibilities: and ONLY about the possibilities. Altogether too much energy and effort is expended upon impossibilities. Thus anxiety is intensified by frustration. Many a man has wasted his life trying to make it more secure than it can possibly be made. Many a woman has wasted her life trying to make her family safer than any family can possibly become. Remember that other people deserve to take some risks. Remember that you cannot get rid of risks yourself. Concentrate upon what is possible. Try to find out exactly what it is–not too much in haste, certainly not in panic, but candidly and steadily–and then, when you know, work at it. You may not be able to go precisely where you originally wanted to go; the world may not be the kind of world you used to think it was; all that is dear to you in it may not be available to your protection; but still, you can go somewhere and with credit and satisfaction; and the world may turn out to be doing better than you thought, after all. As for what is dear to you, it may survive without your protection; and if not, you will find the courage that millions of others have found. Fit yourself into the actual opportunities; those you truly have or can really make. If you fail to do so by seeking the impossible, you will lose everything–including all the natural joy of life.

We can truly say that running after the impossible brings on anxiety states more swiftly and more terribly than anything else. It can cause actual neurosis. It can produce embitterment. It is not true that we can have everything, do anything, achieve whatever we want to. Live, then, with the possible; cultivate the possible; find happiness in it and development and fulfillment. Do not succumb to the anxiety–the preventable anxiety–that disables us unnecessarily but completely, and paralyzes all useful effort.

The third principle is: Accept the inevitabilities. What nothing can be done about, should be accepted candidly and freely. We must not wait until it thrusts itself upon us as a crushing blow. Not many inevitabilities are intolerable. What is intolerable is anxiety about inevitabilities which are not accepted as such. I need hardly say that I am not advising inertia. I am not thinking of an indolent person’s “inevitabilities” at all. I am thinking of such inevitabilities as the world of peril that we live in; and the world of change which hurries itself upon us. I am thinking also of inevitabilities in the more narrowly personal life. “No man,” said Jesus, “by being anxious can add one inch to his stature.” If it cannot be done, do not fret yourself into a nervous breakdown trying to do it. And of course, Jesus was not concerned with mere physical height; he had in mind everything that cannot be changed no matter what we do about it–things that have to be accepted. And in the present world, there are many of them. To the inevitable it is best to bow–and, in its presence, to come at last to smile.

I think those are three pretty good rules–and quite practical. The more I have had recourse to them in my own life, the more I have come to see their worth. Face the realities; be energetic about the possibilities–and only the possibilities; accept the inevitabilities, freely frankly, and courageously. This may not banish anxiety–no–but it will cut down its power to thwart us and impede us; it will stop anxiety from eating into our hearts. It will give us some relief, something of mastery. And we can do these things–measurably–simply by trying; by beginning to do them and then going on doing them. Gradually, they become part of our life and we look out on the world with new recognition and insight.

I sometimes think I can identify the people who have this outlook–have it in a robust way–almost on sight. They do not have a hunted look. They have s special sort of laugh–or at least a smile. You know instinctively that in an emergency they would have strength. The strength that comes from wisdom and courage intermingled. It is very hard to put them out of countenance. They are almost free from pretense. If they do any pretending at all, it is for your sake, not their own. Within themselves, they are frank. They have met reality on its own terms. They are at peace with the truth of things. When they have to let go, they do so rather simply. When they hold on, they do it patiently and confidently. Perhaps it is just this, after all, when carried far enough, that makes a sage or a saint. It is a total personal quality–and it comes with the mastering of anxiety. Of course, a great deal more could be said about it than this–but this is enough for the moment. It is the path to that deeper, truer kind of mastery: the mastery that looks at all the flashy sorts of achievement with a half-merry, half-pitying smile. Yet, it keeps a wary eye for pitfalls, knowing that no understanding and no mastery can ever be complete.

These three rules, then–these and a fourth. For though these rules are good, as I believe, I would not want to offer them alone. There is a fourth. To master anxiety, or anything else whatever, a man must live for something bigger than himself. Anxiety mainly comes from “I–me–mine.” If we ourselves are all that life can hold of worth–all that is precious to us–then we are doomed before we start. We must get farther away from self-centered living. Live for other people–yes–and for the difficult but essential aims of the better world that we are trying to build. Just as the great artist becomes absorbed less in himself and more in his art, and as the true scientist devotes himself less to his fame and more to his quest, so must all men give themselves to what is more than they are–to the uttermost beyond them and the power of life within them–to the spirit of the highest and to God.

That is what we must do if we are ever to move in from the outer court of life’s temple to its inner sanctuary. And when we do, we can subordinate the rest–for everything falls into its own place. We do not clutch at life so fiercely when we feel that greater life has got its grip on us. For we belong, then, to the ultimate, to the invincible. We do not try to take it with us our way; we are ready to go with it, its way. I said a while ago that all was insecure–nothing was dependable. In the context that I spoke from then, what I said was true. But I speak now from a different context. I have raised the sights a little. And in the final sense, the sense which the soul knows by its own insight and experience, a great deal is dependable–indeed, everything that matters. Here is something that a preacher cannot give to you by preaching. It comes from living–brave, patient, indomitable living…When we come to know at last what it was that ancient men felt in their hearts when they cried out, “Into thy hands, O God,” we know why all anxiety is needless. And between the mystery beyond us and the mystery within us, there is peace.

Prayer: O God, who committest to us the swift and solemn trust of life, reconsecrate us by the worship of this hour to the faith that is stronger than circumstance, to the hope that cannot be dimmed and to the love that never fails. Amen.

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