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Worrying

Yesterday is gone. Tomorrow has yet to come. But it is hard to live in the present! We worry too much. Worrying is part and parcel of our daily life. A life without worries seems not only impossible, but even undesirable. We have a suspicion that to be carefree is unrealistic and may be---dangerous. Our worries goad us to work hard, to prepare for the future, and to arm ourselves against impending dangers. Father Henri Nouwen says:

“It is hard to live in the present. The past and the future keep harassing us. The past with guilt, the future with worries. So many things have happened in our lives about which we feel uneasy, regretful, angry, confused, or, at least, ambivalent. And all these feelings are often colored by guilt. Guilt that says: ‘You ought to have done something other than what you did; you ought to have said something other than what you said.’ These “oughts” keep us feeling guilty about the past and prevent us from being fully present to the moment.

Worse, however, than our guilt are our worries. Our worries fill our lives with “What ifs”: ‘What if I lose my job, what if my father dies, what if there is not enough money, what if the economy goes down, what if a war breaks out?’ These many “ifs” can so fill our mind that we become blind to the flowers in the garden and the smiling children on the streets, or deaf to the grateful voice of a friend.

The real enemies of our life are the “oughts” and the “ifs.” They pull us backward into the unalterable past and forward into the unpredictable future. But real life takes place in the here and the now. God is a God of the present. God is always in the moment, be that moment hard or easy, joyful or painful. When Jesus spoke about God, he always spoke about God as being where and when we are. ‘When you see me, you see God. When you hear me you hear God.’ God is not someone who was or will be, but the One who is, and who is for me in the present moment. That’s why Jesus came to wipe away the burden of the past and the worries for the future. He wants us to discover God right where we are, here and now.”(Here and Now, 94-95)

“Today worrying means to be occupied and preoccupied with many things, while at the same time being bored, resentful, depressed, and very lonely. I am not trying to say that all of us are worried in such an extreme way all the time. Yet, there is little doubt in my mind that the experience of being filled yet unfulfilled touches most of us to some degree at some time. In our highly technological and competitive world, it is hard to avoid completely the forces which fill up our innermost selves, our fellow human beings, and our God.

     One of the most notable characteristics of worrying is that it fragments our lives. The many things to do, to think about, to plan for, the many people to remember, to visit, or to talk with, the many causes to attack or defend, all these pull us apart and make us lose our center. Worrying causes us to be ‘all over the place,’ but seldom at home. One way to express the spiritual crisis of our time is to say that most of us have an address but cannot be found there. We know where we belong, but we keep being pulled away in many directions, as if we were still homeless.

     ‘All these other things’ keep demanding our attention. They lead us so far from home that we eventually forget our true address, that is, the place where we can be addressed.

     Jesus responds to this condition of being filled yet unfulfilled, very busy yet unconnected, all over the place yet never at home. He wants to bring us to the place where we belong. But His call to live a spiritual life can only be heard when we are willing honestly to confess our own homeless and worrying existence and recognise its fragmenting effect on our daily life. Only then can a desire for our true home develop. It is of this desire that Jesus speaks when He says, ‘Do not worry. . .Set your hearts on His Kingdom first. . . and all these other things will be given you as well.’” (Making all things New, 35-37)

 

But, in today’s chaotic world, where retrenchment, war and great uncertainty are in the air, it is extremely hard to ‘set our heart on His Kingdom first’ and not to worry. Some friends will advise us “Don’t worry. Things will be OK.” But we cannot help but worry, as Henri Nouwen says,

“People often say: ‘Don’t worry, things will work out fine.’ But we do worry and we can’t stop worrying just because someone tells us to. One of the painful things of life is that we worry a great deal about our children, our friends, our spouse, our job, our future, our family, our country, our world, and endless other things. We know the answer to Jesus’ question: ‘Can any of you, how ever much you worry, add one single cubit to your span of life?’ (Matthew 6:27). We know that our worrying does not help us nor does it solve any of our problems. Still, we worry a lot and, therefore, suffer a lot. We wish that we could stop worrying, but we don’t know how. Even though we realize that, tomorrow, we may have forgotten what we were worrying about so much today, we still find it impossible to turn off our anxious minds

My mother, who was a very caring and prayerful woman, worried a lot, especially about me and my brothers and sister. When I spent time at home she could never go to sleep until she was sure I had safely returned to the house. This was the case, not only when I was a teenager and liked to hang out with my friends late at night, but also after I had travelled far and wide by plane, train, and bus and had been in quite dangerous situations. Whenever I came home, whether I was eighteen or forty years old, my mother would stay awake worrying about her child until she was sure that he was safely in bed!

Most of us are not very different. So the real question is: Can we do anything to worry less and be more at peace? If it is true that we cannot change anything by worrying about it, how then can we train our hearts and minds not to waste time and energy with anxious ruminations that make us spin around inside of ourselves. Jesus says: ‘Set your heart on God’s kingdom first.’ That gives us a hint as to the right direction.” (Here and Now, 120-121)

 

Numerous ways have been tried to stop the mind from worrying. One of the more successful ways is diversion and conscious distraction. This has worked for many. When confronted with intense worry, look for activities that will fully absorb us, either mentally or physically. Go out for a walk or work at the computer. Dredge up tasks that have been avoided out of busyness. Write letters, go bird watching, weed the garden, read a novel, mediate, play with pets, get involved in sports, volunteer work, or anything else that can divert our mind from the worry. Many people have found that conscious distraction and the discipline of activity can be helpful tools in overcoming worry temporarily.

But, Jesus points to the possibility of a new life without worries, a life in which all things are being made anew. Henri Nouwen advises:

“One of the least helpful ways to stop worrying is to try hard not to think about the things we are worrying about. We cannot push away our worries with our minds. When I lay in my bed worrying about an upcoming meeting, I can’t stop my worries by saying to myself: ‘Don’t think about these things; just fall asleep. Things will work out fine tomorrow.’ My mind simply answers: ‘How do you know?’ and is back worrying again.

Jesus’ advice to set our hearts on God’s kingdom is somewhat paradoxical. You might give it the following interpretation: ‘If you want to worry, worry about that which is worth the effort. Worry about larger things than your family, your friends, or tomorrow’s meeting. Worry about the things of God: truth, life, and light!’

As soon, however, as we set our hearts on these things our minds stop spinning because we enter into communion with the One who is present to us here and now and is there to give us what we most need. And so worrying becomes prayer, and our feelings of powerlessness are transformed into a consciousness of being empowered by God’s spirit.

Indeed, we cannot prolong our lives by worrying, but we can move far beyond the boundaries of our short life span and claim eternal life as God’s beloved children.

Does that put an end to our worrying? Probably not. As long as we are in our world, full of tensions and pressures, our minds will never be free from worries, but when we keep returning with our hearts and minds to God’s embracing love, we will be able to keep smiling at our own worrisome selves and keep our eyes and ears open for the sights and sounds of the kingdom.” (Here and Now, 89-90)

 

In today’s turbulent times, Jesus’ advice seems to be such a radical and “unrealistic” counsel for us to follow. Yet, how do we set our hearts and minds on God’s Kingdom? Henri Nouwen says:

“How do we concretely go about setting our hearts on God’s kingdom? When I lay in my bed, not able to fall asleep because of my many worries, when I do my work preoccupied about all the things that can go wrong, when I can’t get my mind off my concern for a dying friend---what am I supposed to do? Set my heart on the kingdom? Fine, but how does one do this?

There are as many answers to this question as there are people with different lifestyles, personalities, and external circumstances. There is not one specific answer that fits everyone’s needs. But there are some answers that can offer helpful directions.

     One simple answer is to move from the mind to the heart by slowly saying a prayer with as much attentiveness as possible. This may sound like offering a crutch to someone who asks you to heal his broken leg. The truth, however, is that a prayer, prayed from the heart, heals. When you know the Our Father, the Apostles’ Creed, the “Glory Be to the Father” by heart, you have something to start with. You might like to learn by heart the Twenty-third Psalm: “The Lord is my shepherd...” or Paul’s words about love to the Corinthians or St. Francis’s prayer: “Lord, make me an instrument of your peace....” As you lie in your bed, drive your car, wait for the bus, or walk your dog, you can slowly let the words of one of these prayers go through your mind simply trying to listen with your whole being to what they are saying. You will be constantly distracted by your worries, but if you keep going back to the words of the prayer, you will gradually discover that your worries become less obsessive and that you really start to enjoy praying. And as the prayer descends from your mind into the center of your being you will discover its healing power.” (Here and Now, 90-91)

     “The daily contemplation of the Gospel and the attentive repetition of a prayer can both profoundly affect our inner life. Our inner life is like a holy space that needs to be kept in good order and well decorated. Prayer, in whatever form, is the way to make our inner room a place where we can welcome those people who search for God.

After I had spent a few weeks slowly repeating Paul’s words, ‘Love is always patient and kind; love is never jealous. . . .love never seeks its own advantage,’ these words began to appear on the walls of my inner room much as the license in a doctor’s office. This was obviously not an “apparition” but the emergence of an image. This image of a picture with sacred words on the wall of my inner room gave me a new understanding of the relationship between prayer and ministry.

Whenever I meet people during the day, I receive them in my inner room, trusting that the pictures on my walls will guide our meeting.

Over the years, many new pictures have appeared on my inner walls. Some show words, some gestures of blessing, forgiveness, reconciliation, and healing. Many show faces: the faces of Jesus and Mary, the faces of Thérèse of Lisieux and Charles de Foucauld, the faces of Ramakrishna and the Dalai Lama.

It is very important that our inner room has pictures on its walls, pictures that allow those who enter our lives to have something to look at that tells them where they are and where they are invited to go. Without prayer and contemplation the walls of our inner room will remain barren, and few will be inspired.” (Here and Now, 94-95)

    

     If we are the worrying types or we worry too much, why don’t we give Henri Nouwen’s suggestion a try? What have we got to lose?   

 

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