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Thoughts for the Worrier

May 21, 2021


Sometimes I worry.

And I imagine you do too.

Oh, I’m not wringing my hands about anything in particular—I just get that sense of unease and disquiet that hangs in the background of human existence. I would reason that this type of anxiety is a cousin to Winston Churchill’s ephemeral “black dog” of depression.

Many years ago, in a particular fit of distress (the cause of which, of course, I have since forgotten), my father assured me that to be alive is to have some degree of anxiety. Conjuring up the image of a tin-helmeted, mud-caked doughboy in the First World War, he warmly teased me, “Life is in the trenches.”

Indeed, life is in the trenches. If we aren’t preoccupied with our children’s well-being, our job performance, or our finances, then we are concerned about our aging parents, our medical conditions, and the fate of our soul. Zing! The bullet flies by. Whiz! The bayonet just misses. Ker-blam! The mortar fire peppers us with dirt and shrapnel. Life in the trenches. Ugh.

In considering the troubled mind, Michel de Montaigne recalled that “someone said to Socrates that a certain man had grown no better by his travels. ‘I should think not,’ he said; ‘he took himself along with him.’” Emily Dickinson gave voice to our angst in her poem I Many Times Thought Peace Had Come:

I many times thought Peace had come
When peace was far away,
As wrecked men deem they sight the land
When far at sea they stay.

And struggle slacker, but to prove,
As hopelessly as I,
That many the fictitious shores
Before the harbor lie.

We all live with a degree of anxiety that we want to assuage. To be sure, for most of us a somewhat ‘normal’ ebb and flow of stress and worry does not become an immobilizing disorder, but we do seek out some relief, spending plenty on medication and therapy, retreats and meditation, drugs and alcohol just to still the unquiet mind. Robert Frost’s solitary traveler in Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening finds momentary respite in the pristine stillness of the winter woods. “The only other sound’s the sweep / Of easy wind and downy flake.” It is a silence so enveloping that you can literally hear the soft wind and the sound of snowflakes alighting on the earth. William Butler Yeats found his solace on The Lake Isle of Innisfree where “peace comes dropping slow / Dropping from the veils of the morning to where the cricket sings.” But Frost’s and Yeats’ peace is unlasting, for Frost’s figure has “miles to go before he sleeps,” and Yeats finds himself not at Innisfree but still standing “on the roadway, or on the pavements grey.”

But perhaps this sense of longing without arrival is as it should be. We are, after all, made for someplace else. C.S. Lewis observed, “If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world.” And G.K. Chesterton finally grasped his “homesickness while at home” when he recognized, “The modern philosopher had told me again and again that I was in the right place, and I had still felt depressed even in acquiescence. But I had heard that I was in the wrong place, and my soul sang for joy.”

Knowing our anxiety, Christ consistently greeted his disciples with “Peace be with you.” But he knew our final peace (or as Hilaire Belloc would name it, our “final gladness”) was not to be found in this world of transition.

Do not let your hearts be troubled. You have faith in God; have faith also in me. In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If there were not, would I have told you that I am going to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back again and take you to myself, so that where I am you also may be.
—John 14:1-3

We have not arrived at our ultimate destination. It gloriously awaits us. Our current angst, it seems, is a natural consequence of our heavenward souls grounded by earthly feet of clay. Someday, bliss will be ours. But not today.

In his essay On Dropping Anchor, Hilaire Belloc cataloged a rollicking series of misadventures on his sailing vessel. From being chastised for tying his boat to a private buoy to accidentally disrupting a boat race, Belloc recounts the exuberant but wearying life of navigating and anchoring in uncertain waters. In his recollection, he thrills at his small voyages, but knows it is not all. “I love to consider the place which I have never yet seen, but which I shall reach at last, full of repose and marking the end of those voyages, and security from the tumble of the sea,” Belloc muses. He continues:

This place will be a cove set round with high hills on which there shall be no house or sign of men, and it shall be enfolded by quite deserted land; but the westering sun will shine pleasantly upon it under a warm air. It will be a proper place for sleep.

The fair-way into that haven shall lie behind a pleasant little beach of shingle, which shall run out aslant into the sea from the steep hillside, and shall be a breakwater made by God. The tide shall run up behind it smoothly, and in a silent way, filling the quiet hollow of the hills, brimming it all up like a cup—a cup of refreshment and of quiet, a cup of ending.

Then with what pleasure shall I put my small boat round, just round the point of that shingle beach, noting the shoal water by the eddies and the deeps by the blue color of them where the channel runs from the main into the fair-way. Up that fair-way shall I go, up into the cove, and the gates of it shall shut behind me, headland against headland, so that I shall not see the open sea anymore, though I shall still hear its distant noise. But all around me, save for that distant echo of the surf from the high hills, will be silence; and the evening will be gathering already.

Under that falling light, all alone in such a place, I shall let go the anchor chain, and let it rattle for the last time. My anchor will go down into the clear salt water with a run, and when it touches I shall pay out four lengths or more so that she may swing easily and not drag, and then I shall tie up my canvas and fasten all for the night, and get me ready for sleep. And that will be the end of my sailing.

Many of us have not arrived at that place of final anchoring. Until we do, we will worry. After all, we are in the trenches. We are standing on the roads and pavement grey. Far from God’s mansions, we have miles to go before we sleep.