A Message from Ben, April 16th, 2020
In my office, directly behind my chair, hangs a print of the Greek Titan Atlas. He holds his burden surrounded by mountains and a lake. He is alone without anyone else to offer relief. He remains in solitary, holding his weight forever.
I often contemplate this print, especially now for obvious reasons. What is going on in his head? How does he feel, physically? Is his body close to collapsing, is he tired, does he wish for a break?
More and more as I think about Atlas, I associate him with anxiety.
He holds a burden that he cannot pass onto anyone or put down. Because of this, his unique potential suffering is difficult to articulate to others. He’s also physically alone and his geographical companions are unable to converse with him, so he might feel like a stranger. The burden is probably taxing on him given that he has not been able to take a break and I wonder if it is getting harder to bear over time. And it’s not like someone can just tell him to get over it.
Anxiety seems similar to my considerations of Atlas. Anxiety is a burden which individuals hold and is often difficult to articulate to others given the particularity of one’s anxious experience, their unique triggers, and how it manifests within someone. Anxiety can make one feel isolated from those around them, especially given mediums like social media which often only put forth what one wishes others to see; that they are happy, content, and strong.
Furthermore, anxiety doesn’t seem to be transferable to others. While one can discuss their anxiety and try to articulate what it is like, it doesn’t seem like one can remove their anxiety onto the shoulders of another person. In other words, individuals might not know what it is like for another to experience their individual anxiety as another individual experiences it. And, finally, telling someone experiencing anxiety to “get over it” seems to demonstrate a misunderstanding of what a person is experiencing.
Christians have a complicated history with anxiety.
Responses range far and wide. For example, one individual from my former denomination said this when presented with anxiety: “Jesus came to bring life and bring it to the fullest. If you’re not experiencing that, I don’t know what to tell you”. While another said, “Anxiety is a clear indication that you have a spiritual problem and that you need to get right with God”. Anxiety is the proof of an inferior religious individual.
Others argue that anxiety should not be part of the Christian life, because if we possess anxiety then we are not focusing on the promises that God has made for God’s people (peace, joy, etc.) Yes, anxiety can be part of the human experience, but Christians are called to master their anxiety in order to be a strong example to others.
Some posit that Christians are to embrace their anxiety, since Christ’s power is made perfect in weakness. Why feign strength when God asks for the opposite? Anxiety is an opportunity to find strength in Christ and to potentially understand the mystery of how Christians find their identity by being transparent, anxiety and all.
And still others argue that anxiety is simply part of being human, Christians included, that is no different than any other aspect; it’s just part of the program. Everyone has anxiety, be it generally, about specific instances, or genetic anxiety which can result in regular panic attacks or depression. It’s not superior or inferior, anxiety simply is.
As I’ve shared – because I believe that transparency is important, negative associations of mental conditions should be fought, and there is both a theological and a Scriptural precedent for ministers to address difficult topics, specifically those with stigmas – I possess genetic anxiety and depression. I have preached about it from the pulpit. I have shared my experience in small groups. I have written about it in term papers.
And to be honest, I’m still working out what I think my response to anxiety should be. Note, should be rather than is; I’m not sure that how I currently understand anxiety in light of Christ is correct. This, like most things, is a process.
But I will say this. In anxious moments, when my genetic imbalance threatens to cause me a panic attack, my print of Atlas comes back to my mind, and these words accompany the image:
The mountains are bigger than his burden.
While his burden may be the world to him, there still exists a larger world beyond. The mountains, the lake, the trees, the wildlife…they are still greater than the weight he carries. Their multitude, their enormity, their endlessness; they are bigger than his burden.
And sometimes, only sometimes, that’s enough. Maybe that will be enough for you at times during this season as well.
When it’s not, know that you are still prayed for, loved, and part of God’s Kingdom. As Paul says, “And I am convinced that nothing can ever separate us from God’s love. Neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither our fears for today nor our worries about tomorrow-not even the powers of hell can separate us from God’s love. No power in the sky above or in the earth below-indeed, nothing in all creation will ever be able to separate us from the love of God that is revealed in Christ Jesus our Lord.”