Stop worrying!

Liz Stuart, 16 February 2020

Romans 8: 18–25; Matthew 6: 25–34

Here’s a little song I wrote:
You might want to sing it note for note.
Don’t worry, be happy.
(Bobby McFerrin, 1988)

Among the many things I am grateful to the University of Winchester for is the way it has cured me of my tendency to worry – by giving me a job in which there is so much to worry about, some of it serious stuff, that I either do not worry about any of it or I worry about it all and die. Worrying is bad for your health, and if you are an excessive worrier you are more likely than non-worriers to suffer from coronary heart disease and a host of other diseases.

From what I can gather, worrying is a particularly human trait and would not have bothered our oldest hunter-gatherer ancestors who lived in what is called an ‘immediate-return environment’ and did not have to think beyond the immediate future. Our ancestors may have experienced fear, but as soon as the threat was gone or relieved they calmed down. When we moved from being hunter-gatherers to a more agrarian existence we began to live in a ‘delayed-return environment’ focused on the future: I plant these seeds today so that I can pick the harvest next year. The problem is that in a delayed-return environment a lot of things can go wrong, and so two tiny but toxic words entered our mental vocabulary: ‘What if?’

When I think about my days as a worrier, I think I worried about those things that either I did not understand or over which I had no control, like plumbing, IT or other people’s behaviour. In a fascinating literary and cultural history of worrying Professor Francis O’Gorman argues that ‘worry is the unhappy child of the turn from the gods to man’ in the modern era. Without a God to guarantee that the future will be OK and with a seemingly endless array of choices to make decisions upon, reason can often melt into worry. Worrying, I think, gives us some sort of sense of control of the future. By imagining the worst, we think we can prevent it happening; but by imagining the worst, we frighten ourselves and worry more.

Worry is like a distorted form of prayer in which we talk to ourselves. It is also preoccupying and paralysing. The word ‘worry’ originally meant ‘to strangle’. Worry strangles the life and joy of today for the possible sorrow of tomorrow, most of which will never be realised. Churchill mused, ‘When I look back on all these worries, I remember the story of the old man who said on his deathbed that he had had a lot of trouble in his life, most of which had never happened’. My mother used to have a little rhyme:

Don’t trouble trouble
until trouble troubles you;
it only doubles trouble
and troubles others too.

Worry strangles the life and joy of today for the possible sorrow of tomorrow, most of which will never be realised.

This sort of summarises Jesus’ teaching in our gospel reading today. Jesus teaches us that the things we tend to worry about distract us and derail us from the true purpose of life, which is to seek the kingdom of God now in the present. Remember that Thomas Merton said that in fallen time there is no present. Worry belongs to fallen time. We are called to be people of redeemed time, Easter time, in which there is only present, and that present is full of the presence of God. Merton also said, ‘The little yellow flowers that nobody notices on the edge of that road are saints looking up into the face of God’. They give glory to God by being what God wants them to be here and now. That great philosopher Dolly Parton said, ‘Find out who you are and do it on purpose’. We are called to be gloriously free children of God and we find that freedom in him.

Prayer is essential for the realisation of that vocation, but prayer is often infected and paralysed by worry. We can of course lay all our worries on God if it helps us but, as Jesus notes, God already knows them. Prayer is primarily about plunging into the depths of the divine, where lucidity about who we are and what God calls us to in this moment is found. Worry is like a rubber ring around us that pulls us up to the surface and snares us in the detritus of our lives. Worry keeps us floundering on the surface of life, trapped in an imaginary future.

I have just finished reading a book about clergy, nuns and lay ministers who opposed Nazism, many of whom lost their lives in the process. What strikes me about their stories is that they were not worriers. Most of them were not natural heroes. But they had a clarity that meant that they knew what God was calling them to do to seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness in the shadow of Nazism. Because they swam deep in God, they were not worried about tomorrow but were concerned with what they had to do that day for him.

No one telling you to stop worrying will stop you worrying, but if you want to be liberated from this waste of time and emotion that strangles our lives, dive deep into God and you will be surprised by what riches worry has deprived you of. And if you want to know how to dive into God, I think silence is the answer. Now, when I sit silently before God all the debris of my life comes to the surface, but I find if I can stay in the silence God gently pulls me into himself, and in him all worry dissolves and I can feel worry releasing its stranglehold. So:

Here’s a little song I wrote:
You might want to sing it note for note.
Don’t worry, be happy.