Arts and Culture

Anxiety and Grace

Fourth in a series

In his Apostolic Exhortation, “Christ Lives,” addressed to young people and to the entire people of God, Pope Francis comments on a topic — anxiety    that has interested me since the time I was a high school student. Encouraging readers to follow their dreams, Pope Francis writes the following:

“But be careful about one temptation that can hold us back. It is anxiety. Anxiety can work against us by making us give up when we do not see instant results. Our best dreams are only attained through hope, patience and commitment, and not in haste. At the same time, we should not be hesitant, afraid to take chances or to make mistakes. Avoid the paralysis of the living dead, who have no life because they are afraid to take risks, to make mistakes or to persevere in their commitments. Even if you make mistakes, you can always get up and start over, for no one has the right to rob you of your hope ….

“Don’t observe life from a balcony. Don’t confuse happiness with an armchair, live your life behind a screen. … Don’t go through life anaesthetized or approach the world like tourists.” (pp. 68-69)

I think that there are at least two kinds of anxiety. One is normal and can be experienced by anyone facing new possibilities; the other is neurotic and, depending on its severity, can make life very difficult.

I recall experiencing the first kind of anxiety when I had to make a decision on whether I would accept an invitation to teach religion at a secular college. Teaching at the secular college would have been a part-time job in addition to my other commitments. I had always wanted to teach religion at a secular college because I believed that it would provide an opportunity to do some good.

The invitation, however, seemed to come at the worst possible moment. I was already involved with so many projects that I was afraid that I would not have sufficient time or energy to teach at the secular college. I was anxious that if I accepted the invitation, I would not give a good course, but if I did not accept the invitation, I might never be invited again.

I began to get stomach cramps, could not eat, could not sleep and wished I had not been invited because I could not make a decision. Finally, I spoke to a close friend and explained my predicament. She said, “What? Of course you can do it. You cannot let an opportunity like this to pass. You can do it!”

Immediately the stomach cramps disappeared, and I went ahead, accepted the invitation and, I hope, gave a fairly good course. All I needed was a friend’s encouragement. Pope Francis is trying to give all of us, but especially young people, that encouragement.

The second kind of anxiety is not normal. A person who cannot get on an elevator without anxiety or an individual who cannot look out the window in a high building might be examples of anxiety that is neurotic. Scrupulosity is a good example of an anxiety neurosis. The scrupulous person feels that completely innocent actions are sins. If the scrupulosity becomes severe, the person may need professional counseling.

The advice that Pope Francis offers might help a scrupulous person.

I wonder if trying to place complete trust in God might help not only with normal anxiety, but even to some extent with neurotic anxiety. I don’t think we should look for miracles when a problem requires a psychological solution, but perhaps trying to reach out in charity to help others is not only a holy activity, but is even good for mental health. I wonder.

I recall from my years as a parish priest more than 50 years ago a wonderful experience that was an example of people taking initiative, an experience of people doing what Pope Francis is suggesting.

Another priest and I were organizing small discussion groups in the parish. We had the members of the groups read an excellent paperback about the faith. At one point, we had more than 20 groups.

While the other priest and I supervised the groups, basically the groups were run by the parishioners. The groups met once a week, not on church property, but in one another’s homes. From what they had learned from the paperback book and the discussions, members of the group became less passive, not waiting for the priest to come up with ideas about how to improve parish life, but rather offering their own ideas.

Recalling now those groups, I can once again experience the excitement of those involved in the discussions. The genuine zeal and excitement that I observed many years ago in a parish is what Pope Francis wants to foster today.


Father Lauder is a philosophy professor at St. John’s University, Jamaica. He presents two 15-minute talks from his lecture series on the Catholic Novel, every Tuesday at 9 p.m. on NET-TV.

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