Natural Anxiety and Supernatural Peace

COMMENTARY: Only the extraordinary, the grace of God, can bring about true inner peace.

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We all experience anxiety to one degree or another. St. Paul’s words in Philippians 4:6-7 are as needed as they are consoling:

“Dismiss all anxiety from your minds. Present your needs to God in every form of prayer and in petitions full of gratitude. Then God’s own peace, which is beyond all understanding, will stand guard over your hearts and minds, in Christ Jesus.”

 It is encouraging to know that the anxiety we feel is not far from the peace for which we yearn. God is the Mediator who can exchange anxiety for that special form of peace that passes all understanding. But what is anxiety, a topic many modern existentialist philosophers have examined meticulously?

The German-American existentialist philosopher Paul Tillich, listed in the Pontifical Council for Culture’s report on the New Age as one of the figures who had a great influence on the New Age movement (along with Teilhard de Chardin, Carl Jung, Abraham Maslow, Carl Rogers and Aldous Huxley, among others) sees anxiety as the result of our acute awareness that our existence, in one way or another, is in peril. And it is in peril because we are finite, highly vulnerable beings who do not have complete control over the events of our lives.

We try to do the best we can, and yet something happens — many in the modern world call it fate or bad luck — and our best laid plans are torn asunder. Therefore, as Tillich writes, “Non-being threatens man’s self-affirmation.” This is to say that the being we hope for can, at any moment, collapse into the non-being we dread.

Tillich’s language is metaphysical. Nevertheless, it is easy enough to translate his language into something visual and readily accessible. Imagine the center fielder on a baseball team. The terrain he is obliged to cover is considerable. From a visual perspective, he seems to be just a speck in an ocean of space. There is far more room for the batted ball to land than the ground he is able to cover. As he assumes his position prior to the game, with his cap held across his heart, he is an image of courage, a soldier, as it were, willing to accept his task in spite of being dwarfed by a sea of negative possibilities. He is willing to stand for being despite being surrounded by non-being. The same can be said for parents raising their children, or a writer trying to produce a novel. The room for failure seems to exceed the possibilities for success.

According to Tillich, there have been three kinds of anxiety that have dominated three different ages in human history. In the ancient world, since life expectancy was short, anxiety about fate and death prevailed. In the medieval period, when faith was in flower, it was anxiety about guilt and condemnation that was dominant. The anxiety that characterizes the modern world is a sense of emptiness that leads to utter meaninglessness. The common denominator for all three of these anxieties is recognition of the possibility of personal dissolution. The fact that we experience anxiety is owed to our human condition, which is frail, weak and vulnerable. We are not exactly masters of our domain, a truth about ourselves that we cannot completely suppress. Tillich refers to this condition as “existential anxiety.” What this means is that we experience anxiety because of the nature of our existence. Therefore, this form of anxiety is perfectly normal.

But existential anxiety, though perfectly normal, can get the best of us if we do not do something about it. Tillich and other existential philosophers recommend courage, “the courage to be.” Without this courage, they contend, what is normal can degenerate into something pathological.

Normal anxiety can serve to motivate us. Abnormal anxiety can seriously interfere with our well-being. A person might have a certain anxiety about going to the dentist. A little bit of courage and a realization of the importance of good dental hygiene, however, can spur him on. On the other hand, without these motivational factors or others, he chooses not to visit his dentist and must pay the consequence, thus falling from a better sense of being to an experience of non-being.

This is why Tillich defines a neurosis as “a way of avoiding non-being by avoiding being.” The musician is so terrified of making mistakes that he is unable to perform. The suitor is so fearful of being rejected that he decides not to propose. The job candidate is so anxious about failing the interview that he avoids it and stays home. These are counterproductive strategies.

The solution that Tillich and other existential thinkers offer, namely courage, is sound and helpful. Nonetheless, it is limited. It may lead to a sense of triumph, but it is not the sure road to peace.

St. Paul is stressing the essential importance of prayer and uniting ourselves with Christ. We are finite; God is infinite. We are vulnerable; God is omnipotent. Courage can carry us only so far. Counseling, relaxation and meditation are also helpful. Nonetheless, we need a remedy that does not possess the weaknesses that are inherent in our nature. We cannot pull ourselves up by our bootstraps. We must go outside of ourselves. God alone, therefore, can be the final solution for any anxiety that assails us.

The natural cannot be elevated by the mere natural. Existential philosophy, while helpful, cannot completely eradicate existential anxiety. Only the supernatural — the grace of God — can bring about the peace to which St. Paul refers. Scripture reminds us that we should look to God to overcome the anxieties that mere existential remedies may leave behind:  “When I am afraid, I will trust in you” (Psalm 56:3). “So do not fear, for I am with you; do not be dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you; I will uphold you with my righteous right hand” (Isaiah 41:10). “Cast all your anxieties upon Him because he cares for you” (1 Peter 5:7).

Donald DeMarco is a senior fellow of Human Life International,

a professor emeritus at St. Jerome’s University in Waterloo, Canada,

and an adjunct professor at Holy Apostles College in Cromwell, Connecticut.

His latest book is Footprints on the Sands of Time: Personal Reflections on Life and Death.