* to encourage a reasoned awareness of how our beliefs impact the way we interact with the world around us
* to foster intelligent and open dialogue
* to inspire a sense of spirituality that has real meaning in day-to-day life

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Isaiah 30: The Hazardous Influence of Anxiety

One popular way to interpret some of the promises and threats attributed to Yahweh in the Hebrew scriptures is that Yahweh is a subtle and hidden god who artfully orchestrates circumstances and influences behavior so that his promises and threats are fulfilled in ways that allow his action to remain secret, behind the scenes. Rather than any blatant acts of supernatural power, people claim to see God at work in the actions of human beings and natural processes. The strange thing is that the flow of nature and the behavior of human beings don't need to be explained through some supernatural influence. Nature and people can be understood just fine without assuming that there is a deity behind the curtain, subtly ensuring that what he wants will come to pass.

When the authors of Isaiah were writing passages like the collection of disparate writings in Isaiah 30, their perspective of the world was that, whatever happened, Yahweh was in control. If something bad happened, then Yahweh was punishing people for something, and if something good happened, then Yahweh was rewarding people for something. The only real challenge in life was to figure out what Yahweh wanted, and then to do it. In this ancient and superstitious time, it was wholeheartedly believed that a people's supernatural would respond with clear answers when asked a sincere question. Since Yahweh never communicated directly with people except in folklore, Jewish priests even had their own version of casting bones or reading tea leaves in order to determine what Yahweh wanted. They called it "consulting the Urim and the Thummim," and it was a form of casting lots to get a Yes or No answer to a question, kind of like a sophisticated coin toss. If Yahweh reliably communicated clearly and directly with people, they would never have needed to devise such a method of "consultation."

Of course, we know more now about the psychological factors and ideomotor effects that influence supposed means of communicating with something beyond the natural world, and we know that human beings invent interpretations for events that often have little to do with the actual causes of the effects we perceive. We are, by nature, creative entities. If we want to understand the world around us, though, we have to be more honest than those who attribute things to a supernatural who is willing to bend reality to his will. Armies do not attack because a deity told them to, but because politically minded human beings decide to wage war. Human beings do not wage war because a supernatural has influenced their thinking, but because they believe that violent action is the best way to get what they want. When an ancient city was burned or besieged, it wasn't because a deity was lashing out or fighting alongside a military force. People are capable of causing destruction without any help from a god.

What shall we make of these rather disparaging words of precaution in Isaiah 30? A fearful people react to their anxiety by fleeing to a powerful neighbor, Egypt. Now, it is quite possible that negative consequences of this action were already known at the time this passage was written. When biblical prophecy reveals a particular outcome, often it was written after the fact, even though it was composed in a way that appears to be a prediction of the future. Still, the implication is that if the people had consulted Yahweh, they would have known better. The chapter goes on to suggest that Yahweh is taking the people's behavior rather personally; he seems to be feeling a bit rejected. According to the authors of these passages, the people were not interested in truth, but only wanted to hear affirmations. Comfort and positive promises were valued over honest and challenging admonitions. Then, in Isaiah 30:18-26, a promise is made that Yahweh will stop hiding and will communicate more clearly with people. Like a contrite abuser, he will "[bind] up the injuries of his people and [heal] the wounds inflicted by his blow" (Is 30:26b). There is no indication that this ever actually happened, of course.

In the absence of an external deity (or any supernatural) communicating with us, directly or indirectly, the lessons we might draw from this chapter seem to stem from the dangers of reacting in anxiety -- allowing our anxiety to control us rather than the other way around. When we put our anxiety in the driver's seat, we fail to pay attention to what we already know, we fail to assess our circumstances honestly, and we often create more trouble for ourselves. When we manage our anxiety well, we can better tune in to our guiding principles and our values, and we can more thoughtfully discern appropriate responses to the challenges we face. Anxiety has no integrity, and when we let our anxiety run rampant, our only real motivation is making the anxiety go away. Values and guiding principles often go out the window when we get to that point. If we want to be intentional people who act with integrity to our guiding principles, we have to learn how to manage our anxiety.

Some would suggest that the first step in managing anxiety is recognizing the times when we give control to our anxiety. Like the people of Judah reprimanded in Isaiah 30, one common reaction is to run away. Sometimes, we might make a choice to distance ourselves from a toxic situation or person. That sort of thoughtful response is not the same as fleeing from a perceived threat before we've given ourselves a chance to think. So, the goal isn't necessarily to always stand in the midst of our challenges and take whatever comes our way. Rather, the goal is to make choices with integrity to our deep guiding principles.

Standing and facing our challenges is another reasonable option. Sometimes, in the grip of our anxiety, we automatically fight back against perceived threats. This doesn't have to be physical (although it could be). Verbal arguments, and even trying to convince someone to admit that we're right are reactive ways of engaging in conflict. When our anxiety prompts the action, we can be pretty sure that it's not going to line up with our guiding principles. There are times when our guiding principles prompt us to take a stand for something. This looks and feels different from the conflict we create out of anxiety. When anxiety is in control, we are out of control. When we understand our values and act with integrity to those values, we can take a stand with a sense of purpose, groundedness, and calm.

In addition to fleeing or fighting, there are a couple of other ways that anxiety shows up in our behavior. Sometimes we shift into "overfunctioning" -- trying to fix situations that aren't ours to fix, trying to manage other people's problems for them, or taking on excessive responsibility. When we want our feelings of anxiety to go away, we can go overboard with our efforts to do something -- anything -- to take care of whatever we think is causing our anxiety. This is harmful behavior. It hurts us because it takes on more than what we can reasonably manage, and it hurts other people because it allows them to "underfunction," which is another way that people typically react to anxiety.

As you might imagine, underfunctioning is the opposite of overfunctioning. When we underfunction, we pretend that we are not responsible for our own feelings and behaviors. We let someone else try to fix our problems, while we pretend that we aren't capable of taking responsibility in our own lives. When we underfunction, we often think of ourselves as victims, blaming other people or our circumstances for preventing us from living the lives we want to live. The truth is that if we aren't living with integrity to our own values, that's on us. Anxiety can make it seem otherwise, but when we allow ourselves to be honest and thoughtful, it's easier to recognize our role in creating our lives.

Sometimes, we have a combination of reactions. In Isaiah 30, the people of Judah ran away from the hostile military forces without thinking, and then they slipped into underfunctioning by asking Egypt to solve their problems for them, assuming that they were too weak to do so for themselves. To be fair, their anxiety was in response to a very real threat. There are people today in many parts of the world who are running from extreme violence, and it makes perfect sense for their first priority to be to get to safety. Their anxiety about their own lives being in danger is very real. In such situations, automatic pilot reactions can help people survive.

Most of our anxiety is not in response to real threats, however. Most of our fear is concocted in our own minds, and we still react as if the threats are real. We aren't going to stop being anxious, but we can learn to recognize when we start feeling like fighting back, running away, hyperactively fixing everything, or divesting of our own responsibility for our lives. In those situations, we can't reliably seek the counsel of a supernatural, but we can look within ourselves and determine if what we are doing really matches our values. When we have a clear picture of the kind of people we want to be, we can check our anxious reactions against that vision of a best possible version of ourselves. If we are willing to be thoughtful, we can ask ourselves what would better represent our guiding principles. Maybe getting out of a particular situation or taking a stand are the kinds of things we need to do in order to have integrity with our guiding principles. If so, we can choose to do so thoughtfully and intentionally rather than anxiety-fueled reactivity.

One last thing to keep in mind. Reacting is easy. Letting our anxiety run the show takes almost no effort at all. Lots of people live from reaction to reaction, and they don't know any other way to manage their anxiety. They just do all that they can to make the anxiety go away. Having a clear sense of our guiding principles and our deep values is a little more challenging. Living with integrity and intentionality requires a little more of us than reacting to anxiety requires. The payoff is that we get to create the lives we most want, that we get to be the kind of people we most want to be. We may never hit 100% of our vision of a best possible version of ourselves, but we can only journey toward that vision by recognizing when we are shifting into auto-pilot, checking in with our guiding principles and our values, and adjusting our responses to life accordingly. We already know what kind of people we most want to be. We just need to be willing to pay attention to our own reactions and adjust our course when our anxiety causes us to swerve out of alignment with the things we care about most.

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