Christian Counselor Seattle
Recently, during an online search for messages from pastor/author, John Mark Comer, I discovered a YouTube video entitled, “Becoming A Non-Anxious Presence.” I’ve listened to the message several times since and shared it with friends and family as well. Now, I would like to share it with you because if you have clicked on this article title, I am guessing that you are interested in becoming a non-anxious presence just as I am. This is what I have learned so far.The anxiety that permeates the air around us is nothing new. Western society projects the ideal that humanity is progressing toward a better future. However, the data proves otherwise. In truth, the West is progressing economically and technologically as more people are earning more money, and science, technology, medicine, and lifespans are at an all-time high. Yet, the West is regressing emotionally and relationally.
Let’s consider the Gen Z’s, those who were born from 1997 to 2012, and who are now aged 10-25. The Gen Zers are more advanced in some areas that the Millennial generation, but they are sadly marked by a generation-wide epidemic of anxiety. The mental health of college students nationwide has been consistently declining, showing significant increases in depression and anxiety.
According to eight years of data analyzed, the number of students who met the criteria for one or more mental health problems in 2021 had doubled from 2013. Additionally, there is the increasing problem of relational milieu, which includes the breakdown of the family, widespread divorce, and the resulting issues of insecure attachment, not to mention how gender and sexuality itself is as Comer expressed, “all up in the air” and he continued, “It feels like the West is coming off the rails.”
For this message, Comer has drawn from the wisdom of Edwin H. Friedman, an ordained rabbi and practicing family therapist whose work on leadership is highly acclaimed. According to Friedman, there is a five-step (self-perpetuating) cycle of anxiety by which the West is regressing into a downward emotional, relational spiral.
The first step is REACTIVITY, when people continuously react to the external events of life from anxiety, anger, fear, outrage, etc. Comer makes the point that the 24/7 digital news cycle thrives off of this reactivity because it generates hits, which in turn drive up advertising revenue.
So, essentially, they make money off of our anxiety and our addiction to our phones. Often the outrage is couched to seem like some kind of social justice yet even when there is a legitimate issue, it is often in reality a way to make money and garner followers.
The second step of the anxiety cycle involves the HERDING INSTINCT. Interestingly, we talk so much about how individualistic we are in the West, but we can’t seem to change the nature of what it means to be human. Secular psychologists refer to us as “social animals.”
Whether you choose to go along with that or not, our brains and bodies are wired with a herd mentality. Simply put, we are inclined to follow the crowd. Therefore, as culture is sucked into this reactivity, we follow along and devolve into this mob mentality of what the Right says or the Left says, or the church says or this person or that person says.
This kind of thinking creates a culture of blame displacement. Instead of searching out the underlying causes that are creating toxicity, we focus on the symptoms – viewing them in isolation rather than as a part of a whole system.
Comer puts forth the notion that instead of taking an active approach that examines our ability to affect change within our sphere of influence, we passively retreat into a perpetual victim status, blaming others as well as external forces.
As blame is thrown around, a cultural paralysis sets in with a suffocating fear of offending, which then creates a gridlock, which then prevents renewal. At this point, we take the fourth step of the anxiety cycle, namely, The Quick Fix Mentality.
The Quick Fix Mentality produces the instant gratification we in the West experience – everything from text messaging to social media to ordering on Amazon. Essentially, we have become accustomed to getting what we want when we want it. Subsequently, this instant gratification creates a low threshold of pain and discomfort, which prevents us from attaining what the writers of the Bible call perseverance – endurance that is inspired by hope.
Instead, we look for the proverbial silver bullet – just quick, easy solutions for long-term, complex, very difficult problems. This is true of Millennials and even more true of Gen Zers. Emotional resilience is at the lowest point it’s been in generations. Finally, this then creates step five.
The fifth step is the Lack of Well-Differentiated Leadership. A well-differentiated person possesses a clear sense of boundary between “this is me and that is you.” This is important to recognize given the fact that our brain contains mirror neurons. Meaning that when you look at somebody and they smile at you, you will naturally want to smile in return. And if someone walks into the room and they’re angry, you can also begin to feel this anger or agitation within yourself.
This is how God wired us. We are created for relationship. However, this becomes a challenge if you are not a well-differentiated person and there is someone or a community of people in front of you that is anxiety-ridden, outraged, or blame shifting. It’s hard not to get sucked into that and have a clear line that delineates this person as angry, this person as anxious, this person is upset, and I am okay.
In other words, how other people feel does not have to permeate your spirit. To be well-differentiated is to possess the ability to stay calm, compassionate, and loving even when there is a storm blowing all around you.
According to Friedman, the only way to stop the cycle is to inject into the middle of it what he has called a “non-anxious presence.” This is someone who is at peace with God and themself. It is the only way to break the cycle, be it in a family, a classroom, a church, or a nation. The world is in desperate need of followers of Jesus and others to step in as a non-anxious presence and break the vicious cycle!
If you are still reading this article, you are probably thinking the same thoughts as I did when I listened to this message, “Easier said than done!” After all, we never experience transformative change by simply deciding to be different (“From now on, I’m going to be a non-anxious presence!”) and magically we are never prone to reactivity again. Nonetheless, Jesus, in the book of Matthew, offers us a way forward (or at least a glimpse of a way forward) to becoming the kind of person.
Immediately, Jesus made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead of Him to the other side while He dismissed the crowd. After He dismissed them, He went up by Himself on a mountainside to pray…He was there alone and the boat was already a considerable distance from the land, buffeted by the waves because the wind was against it. – Matthew 14:22-24
As Comer points out, by this time the disciples had been in the boat for nine hours, in other words, all night long. You can imagine how tired they must have been. The story continues to tell us that “when the disciples saw Jesus walking on the water, they were terrified.
They screamed in terror, “It’s a ghost!” They were dead tired, exhausted, and now terrified. Jesus immediately said to them, “ Take courage, it is I. Don’t be afraid.” In the Greek translation, Jesus was saying, ‘I AM is here in your midst. I AM all you need.”
It’s as if Matthew is telling us in this story, that you can’t just wake up one morning and decide that you really should stop being so nervous – “I’m just done. I’m not going to be that way anymore.” Instead, we have to become the kind of people who, by continually following after Jesus, become free of fear and live as a non-anxious presence in the world.
So, how do you rely on Jesus in order to become a non-anxious presence? As Comer suggests, we can do this by countering Friedman’s Five Step Cycle of Reactivity, Herding Mentality, Blame Displacement, and so on. To begin with, if we’re going to walk through this life as a non-anxious presence, we have to slow down our pace of life. One of the main things we see in Jesus’ lifestyle is this rhythm of retreat and return.
Learning to retreat and return is the second step. Retreat and return. Jesus practiced this ebb and flow rhythm and balance between spending time alone in rest and prayer with God caring for his soul, and then returning to his friends, preaching, healing, and actively doing all the things. Comer proposes that one of the great challenges we face as followers of Jesus in this modern era is getting that balance right.
“It’s a moving target based on your personality, stage of life, and God’s call on you. It is a strategy of the enemy against us to make us feel like we always need to do more, be around more, be more…but what is true is that we need more time in prayer and reliance on God.” How well we rest will determine how well we work and how victorious we are against the enemy. We are most vulnerable to the attacks of the enemy when we are exhausted and burned out.
Third, is koinonia, the Greek word used through the book of Acts in the New Testament for community or fellowship. This is the word used to describe the kind of relational bond that Jesus had with His disciples. Now, more than ever, we have a deep need to establish true friendships that exemplify koinonia.
The fourth step is contemplative prayer – resting in the Father’s love in connection with Him. This is not the kind of prayer that feels like “work” but a kind of resting in prayer that Ronald Rohlheiser has defined as, “Relaxing into God’s goodness.”
In the life of Jesus, we don’t see reactivity but thoughtfulness, poise, and wisdom. Jesus returned from prayer with a sense of clarity, direction, and purpose. It is that blend between retreat and return; contemplative rest in God, hearing His voice and getting a sense of direction in your inner heart. Then you can step back into the world in action and activity.
Finally, the fifth kind of counter habit is freedom – freedom at an emotional level from the need for your life to go a certain way; to be content and at peace in whatever circumstance. As Comer explains, “This is a yieldedness that says, “Come what may, good or bad, I’m okay.”
However, this does not mean emotionally repressing or denying your feelings. We let the emotions come through us and ride the wave, but our sense of security and peace is not dependent on thinking that my life has to go a certain way. When Jesus says, “Do not fear,” He’s not saying, “Don’t worry, nothing bad will ever happen to you.”
Comer directs us to consider what happened to Jesus on the cross. What He is saying is, no matter what happens, even death itself, you don’t need to fear because He has made a way for us to pass through it with Him.
According to Comer, there are two very basic ways of dealing with anxiety. The first is to fix all of your problems so you no longer have anything to worry about. (This sounds great but is highly improbable.) Or do all that you can to fix your problems, try to make things okay, and make plans for the future. And then whatever comes, comes. There is no need to fear, rage, manipulate, or freak out.
As Saint Ignatius has so beautifully expressed, “We should not fix our desires on health or sickness, wealth or poverty, success or failure, a long life or a short one. For everything has the potential of calling forth in us a more loving response to our life forever with God. Our only desire and our one choice should be this, I want and choose what better leads to God’s deepening life in me.”
If you, like many others, struggle with anxiety, worry, and fear and would like to speak with a counselor who can encourage, equip, and help you please feel free to contact a Seattle Christian Counseling office in your area to schedule an appointment. We are happy to hear from you!
“Writing”, Courtesy of Green Chameleon, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Pace Yourself”, Courtesy of Brett Jordan, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Sheep”, Courtesy of Judith Prins, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Yellow Flowers”, Courtesy of Marigna Roth, Unsplash.com, CC0 License
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