Hope in an Age of Anxiety
Thank you President Gearan for that kind introduction.
I can’t begin without thanking senior Gina Trask for my topic today. As Gina and I were discussing the Baccalaureate service I asked her advice about what to speak on and she said, “Speak about hope. People need to know there is hope.” As we talked further, we identified some of things that stand in the way of seniors feeling hopeful: maybe they haven’t gotten into graduate school, or maybe they don’t yet have a job, or maybe they don’t have a place to live, or maybe even with a job and a place to live they aren’t sure they can pay the bills and wonder if they will be happy. Anxieties, it seems, can get in the way of hope.
And of course, it’s not just individual anxieties that seniors might be experiencing. We live in an age of anxiety. You in the classes of 2006 had just begun your senior year of high school when the country experienced the shock of terrorist attacks on September 11. Then just as you began your senior year of college, Katrina hit the coast of Louisiana and Mississippi. In between those two catastrophes, the country has gone to war in Iraq where upwards of 35,000 Iraqis and nearly 2500 Americans, many of them your age, have been killed. Post 9/11 Americans are more concerned than ever about chemical, biological and nuclear attacks. On the domestic front we are anxious about the rising costs of health care, the availability of professional jobs, the disappearance of viable retirement plans, and about the growing divide between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have-nots.’ We worry about the high cost of energy and eventual exhaustion of petroleum products. We worry about the environment: pollution, global warming, droughts and coastal flooding. We live in an age of anxiety.
We live in an age of anxiety and that makes hope difficult. In order to feel hopeful, we must first find ways to manage our anxieties, to manage what is making us anxious. In my observation and that of others, there are two primary ways individuals and communities deal with anxiety, both of which can be taken to unhealthy extremes.
The first way of dealing with anxiety is what Norman Vincent Peale called “the power of positive thinking.” We don’t control the outcomes. All we can do is our best, and leave the rest up to God. In my own religious tradition we read in Matthew’s Gospel,
‘Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear.'
Sometimes this aphorism morphs into having faith in positive thinking itself. If we can just relax and trust that things will be OK, they will be. That Bobby McFerrin tune starts playing in my head, “Don’t worry, be happy.”
Our current political climate gives a lot of reinforcement to this proposition that the way to deal with anxiety is just to be positive. The problem we are told over and over again is negative thinking, our lack of faith in what the government is telling us. But experience shows that our worries are often well placed. “We are so worried that going into Iraq will be like going into Vietnam. It will be a quagmire!” “Don’t worry, we’ll be in and out again within 6 months. ” “We are so worried that the levees won’t hold if we get a category 5 storm!” “Don’t worry, they’ve held up until now. ” Positive thinking, a hopeful attitude, doesn’t always work.
Luckily, a few years ago Julie Norem published a book for natural skeptics, called, The Positive Power of Negative Thinking. In it she describes the strategy of “defensive pessimism” that some people use to manage their anxiety. Negative thinkers, look ahead and try to foresee things that might go wrong in order to plan ways to succeed despite those obstacles. Negative thinkers are not always appreciated. For instance, a positive thinker might say, “Hey, let’s have a picnic!” And the negative thinker immediately asks, “What if it rains?” “You are so negative!” But the negative thinker is not saying we shouldn’t have the picnic. She is just looking at the possibility of rain, and saying, maybe we should reserve a shelter, just in case.
Of course, the current political climate reinforces negative thinkers as well as positive thinkers. For negative thinkers we have “emergency preparation.” Since 9/11, municipalities, institutions and individuals have been encouraged or required to do “disaster planning.” FEMA, the Center for Disease Control, Homeland Security and the EPA’s Office of Emergency Management all have Web sites with headlines like “Are You Ready? A Guide to Emergency Preparedness.” These sites take ‘defensive pessimism’ to a whole new level. Now it’s not just wear a seatbelt, have a smoke detector and keep a flash light by the basement door. Now we seem to be moving back into a kind of Cold War, fallout shelter mentality as we are told to store up food and water; get a generator and fuel; plan escape routes; make sure all important documents are together and accessible; have back packs with clothes, food, water purification tablets, First Aid and camping supplies at the ready; arrange places to reconnoiter if family members become separated. These sites give detailed instructions for protecting yourself from, or cleaning up after, contamination of various sorts. And, of course, there are numerous commercial enterprises ready to sell you all kinds of emergency preparedness kits and paraphernalia.
You can probably see where I’m going with this. For positive thinkers trying to deal with anxiety, the risk is moving into denial. For negative thinkers the risk is becoming paranoid and hysterical.
Repressing anxiety doesn’t lead us to hope. Acquiring a positive attitude by just ignoring everything that could be a potential problem may work when no problem materializes. Even I, Miss Negative Thinker, thought that folks who were storing up water, and cash and fuel at the turn of the millennium were just whacko. But a habit of “What, me worry?” seems almost to require wearing blinders and not asking the hard questions. Just “hoping” that you will pass the exam, but not studying; just “hoping” that you will get a great job without acquiring any experience (or perhaps without even applying!) doesn’t work. Denial is not hope.
On the other hand, control is an illusion, and the endless pursuit of control does not lead us to hope either. Negative thinkers can get sucked into a downward spiral, moving from anxiety to paranoia and panic. Trying to control what they can, they first put in place disaster prevention plans and then emergency evacuation plans. Then they become suspicious of what they can’t control outside their homes. Becoming more and more isolationist, they home-school their children to keep them safe from physical harm and bad influences; they eat primarily what they can grow or hunt themselves in order to be sure their food is not contaminated by pesticides and preservatives; they go off the grid, moving far away from cities, military bases, and nuclear power plants that might be targets; they arm themselves against intruders. I don’t observe that survivalists are hopeful people. I don’t observe that the students who have taken up permanent residence in the Career Services Office making sure they have the perfect resume, or in the library making sure their grade point never falls below a 4.0 or in their rooms hiding from the contamination of the social scene are the most hopeful people either.
So are we just stuck? Is there no hope in an age of anxiety, only denial and obsessiveness? Well, perhaps we are stuck if we believe that the only way to find hope is to eliminate the anxiety. That is because the sources of our anxiety are real and many of them are beyond our ability to completely control. So hope, if there is hope, and I believe there is, lies in living creatively with our anxiety, i.e. in living creatively with our Reality. So what we need is not a Disaster Plan, but a Reality Plan that, in the words of the prayer Suprita read, continually moves us from “the unreal to the Real.”
My hope, and my trust, is that your Hobart and William Smith education has provided you with a Reality Preparedness Kit.
Inside that Reality Preparedness Kit (RPK for short) you will find a denial antidote labeled Critical Thinking. Whether you were a media and society major or biology major, you have learned to look for the data and not just to accept what you are told. You have learned, maybe the hard way, that making excuses, saying, “Look, we did not know,” will not make the grade. There is, as a former HWS chaplain put it, such a thing as culpable cluelessness. So if you tend to be a positive thinker, and if you find yourself watching Monty Python’s Life of Brian and not laughing at the last scene when the crucified guys are singing “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life,” run, don’t walk, to your RPK and take a big swig of Critical Thinking.
Inside your RPK, you should also find a set of core values maps to guide you when you come to the place mentioned in Ayokunle’s reading,
Some of these maps you brought with you from home. Others you drew up as you chose a major, as you tutored children at the Middle School, as you worked with Bob Murphy and the Career Development Center. You refined them as you completed your majors and honors projects, as you volunteered over spring breaks, worked as interns. These maps will remind you from where you have come and where you are headed. I trust these core values maps will include reminders like the ones in the Psalm Genny read with us today, that we follow One
who executes justice for the oppressed;
When you come to a crossroad, to a decision that makes you anxious, take out your maps in order to get a better idea of your reality – where you are, where you’re coming from, and where you intend to be. And there you will find your hope.
Your Reality Preparedness Kit also includes a community engagement plan should you become isolated from Others (that’s Others with a capital ‘O’). While at Hobart and William Smith you have learned the necessity of engaging with diverse communities in order to understand more fully the world we live in and in order to make decisions that will benefit all and not just the few in your particular circle. Whether in the Peer Education for Human Relations program or in travel abroad, or in group projects for courses, or in conversations with your classmates from different socio-economic and cultural backgrounds, you have learned how important it is “to see each other with a brand-new eye”; “to appreciate and welcome each other” in order to “move on” and “make it through this time of turbulence.” So if in the days ahead you become separated, isolated into compounds of like-minded survivalists, reach into your RPK, pull out your community engagement plan and reconnect with your hope.
Finally, your RPK should have an oxygen mask. When you were First Years, your FYA group taught you some relaxation and centering techniques. Perhaps you have clicked on to the guided meditation links on the Hubbs Counseling Center Web site and even downloaded the file onto your MP3 player. Maybe you attended Tenzin’s meditation sessions Monday nights or learned to paint mandalas in his class. Maybe you went to Quaker Meeting. Maybe you took long walks, or practiced your musical instrument, or found “the zone” in athletic competition.
Whatever it was, even if it was just my emails encouraging you to “put on your own oxygen mask first before attempting to assist those around you”, I trust you have learned while at HWS the possibility and necessity of breathing. When you are faced with situations that make you anxious, remember -- breathing deeply gives you the clarity of mind that allows you to stay present to Reality. Finding a place of peace, whether through chanting or contemplative prayer, through exercise or art will enable you to offer that peace and hope to others.
The good news is that whether you are by nature a positive or a negative thinker, Hobart and William Smith has given you the tools you need to embrace reality and therefore to live with hope in an age of anxiety. Critical thinking, core values, community engagement and spiritual oxygen will lead you wisdom. Know that
“if you find it, you will find a future, and your hope will not be cut off. ”
Baccalaureate Address, Chaplain Lesley Adams
May 13, 2006