Dr. John E. Johnson

Dr. John E. Johnson

Finding a Way Through the Anxiety of Our Times

I see it. I’m guessing you notice it as well. A rising anxiety has its grip on culture. I sense it in the conversations I have with parishioners. The world isn’t what it used to be. Of course it isn’t. It is always changing. But today there seem to be seismic cultural shifts, leaving a number of us unsettled and shaken.

In his book, A Non-Anxious Presence, Mark Sayers notes that in the span of a generation, the rate of change has left many–especially in the church—disoriented and fearful. Traditional structures (church, family, nation) have collapsed or are in the process of breaking down. We have moved from a fixed and stable world to one that is as “pliable as playdough,” one shaped by the human will.

With the growing rejection of God and the loss of a moral reference point, aberrant behaviors are becoming the norm. Even worse, we are becoming desensitized to them, be they coarse talk in movies or sexual expressions that no longer have moral boundaries. What would once shock us is becoming commonplace.

We have moved into what Sayers refers to as a gray zone. We are living in between the passing of one era and the coming of a new world. Definitions and margins are disappearing, and resistance to the gospel is growing. Carl Truman calls it a “strange new world,” where “expressive individualism” is taking hold.

Sayers notes that anxiety thrives in a gray zone of uncertainty. One way to manage our increasing angst is to find a comfort zone that will absorb the culture’s fretfulness. I think I have found one—a cruise ship. I know. I have been on one. It is part of the itinerary of a study tour I am leading at present. After walking through sites in Philippi, Thessaloniki, Berea, Athens, and Corinth, we recently embarked on a voyage to Ephesus, stopping at several Greek islands along the way. We have just disembarked and are now in Sparta.

Sailing on the Celestyal Discovery has to be in the upper echelons of ease. For the past four days, everything has been structured to make life easy. The aim is to avoid any discomfort. We disembark to see ancient ruins and hear of ancient peoples who barely survived the onslaught of earthquakes and droughts, scarcities and foreign invaders. We look at the evidence of people using axes and riding wild bulls in Crete and visit the Apostle John’s cave in the confining space of Patmos.

After taking notes and reflecting on so many ancient miseries, we come back to the security of our ship, where a lavish buffet and a lounge chair on deck eleven await us. Feeling good is the expected normative state of being. As Sayers notes, the absence of good feelings is an amber warning light; here on the ship, the smiling crew work to ensure that the lights are always green. The only disruption is the occasional wait for the elevator, or dealing with the intrusion that occurs if someone cuts in line and grabs the last Crème Brulee. 

It’s all fine, but it does not hold a candle to the ease those experience on the newest cruise liner, the Icon of the Seas. Some refer to it as Disneyland on steroids. The unanimated version of WALL-E. Atlantic journalist Gary Shteyngart recently journaled his experience on the cruise, describing the ship as “a hodgepodge of domes and minarets, tubes and canopies designed by idiots.” Nonetheless, if there is an ultimate symbol of luxury it is this—a ship with a mall where Rolex watches begin at 17K, seven pools, waterslides, and surf simulations. People swim up to bars, and after a hard day of hitting the buffets, they head for the casino or a cabaret show. There is an endless supply of amenities that include tattoo parlors and fruit carving displays. It is the ultimate destination for subsidized childcare. Some 7600 passengers experience what the writer calls a “totalitarian sense of gigantomania.”

Back on Discovery, there were only two pools and no tattoo parlors, but there was a Hemingway Lounge where I could watch the sea and write. And here’s my takeaway: comfort zones like cruise liners are nice. I could get used to this (for maybe a day or two more). But comfort zones are not a long-term remedy for anxiety. (Given the 19k it costs to board the Icon, that would be real stress!).

Sayers makes the point that comfort zones have a place, but if ease and good feelings become the drivers of our lives, the stronghold for our individualism, and the solution for our anxieties, something goes wrong. They bump up against the boundaries of reality. Environments that facilitate a life that feasts on the fruit of comfort eventually disorient. They can insulate us from real development. Discomfort and pain and gray zones are part of life, and it is these God uses to grow us. A cruise ship is fun, but it is a brief fantasy, a fake reality, and fake realities over time will create fake humans..

There is a better cure for anxiety, and it is found in turning from expressive individualism and constant comfort zones and back to God. He alone shepherds us through the chaos of a broken world and uses its testings to make us strong. More than this—in him alone we find our true comfort.

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