An excerpt from “Fortune Cookie Wisdom: a contemplative perspective” by Charles W. Sidoti
Have you ever experienced a severe episode of anxiety or what is commonly referred to as a panic attack? It may be triggered by something obvious like a traumatic event or a tragic loss; or it can seem to come out of nowhere. An overwhelming but vague fear suddenly comes upon you. Adrenalin is released into the bloodstream. Your brain shifts into overdrive as you frantically try to think your way out of the crippling emotional distress. Your body is in the classic fight or flight mode.
If you have ever had such an experience, you know that it is virtually impossible to think your way out of it and back to a more peaceful state. Anti-anxiety medicine can help for a time and is sometimes an important part of the healing process. In the end, after visiting the counselors and having taken the medicine for a while, the only lasting remedy is time and patience. Time puts distance between us and the initial episode helping us to eventually feel better. But patience is needed while waiting for the time to pass and patience is difficult to come by when you are afraid. As amazing as the miracle of human intellect is, when it comes to understanding the meaning of life, or the ways and secrets of the universe, it will always fail us. We will never think our way to inner peace. It is in this regard that Albert Einstein, who is widely regarded as one of the most intelligent people to have ever lived, once commented that he “could never understand it all.”
The wisdom contained in this saying has life-changing potential because it can help us to break through to a new level of being, a place in which we live with a true and healthy sense of humility in the midst of an infinitely vast and continuously unfolding universe. The virtue of humility has the power to heal us at a fundamental level because when we sincerely embrace it we discover who we really are and who God really is. When this happens, irrational fear and anxiety begin to dissipate.
Humility always directs us to live more attentively in the present moment. Former Beatle John Lennon once said, “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.” This is a striking statement because the wisdom it contains is so easy to see; putting that wisdom into practice, however, is not so easy. The question we need to ask is “Why?” Why are we so often “busy making other plans” instead of being actively engaged in the present moment?
To better understand this, it is helpful to call to mind the way in which life comes to us, which is moment by moment, millisecond by millisecond, in the here and now. Life comes to us in a way that can seem tediously slow to our fast-paced “I want it now” mentality. Our minds are capable of working and moving at lightning fast speed. Our thought process moves at a rate that is much faster than which life presents itself to us. Because of this we easily grow impatient and bored with the here and now. Abandoning the present moment we instead turn our attention inward and onto the screen of our imagination. Within our own mind we try to re-live the past, or through our worry predict the future. We do this even though neither the past nor the future actually exists, at least not in any way that is available to us to act upon. Living more consistently in the here and now as humility teaches us to do is critically important toward our goal of becoming a more peaceful person.
The eventual discovery of who we really are and who God really is means that a fundamental shift has taken place in the way in which we approach life. Until this shift takes place the struggle to discern what is our responsibility and what is God’s responsibility, or “role confusion,” can wreak havoc upon our inner life. This role confusion occurs in us when we worry. In the act of worrying we are unconsciously assuming God’s role in our life. This is something that is of course doomed from the start. It is also the source of endless frustration and anxiety. Stop to consider, whatever it is that you are worried about is something that is outside of your ability to control. Were this not true you would not be worrying about it, you would instead be doing something about it. Whatever is outside of our control is ultimately God’s business. It is God’s part in our life not ours.
A psychiatrist is sometimes called a “shrink.” One way of understanding this title is that in assuming God’s part through our worry we are operating from an imagined and inflated sense of our own importance and power to control life. If the doctor is successful he or she helps to shrink our psyche back to a place where a human being is better able to function optimally. I as the patient become more aware of who I am, or perhaps more importantly, who I am not, God.
Assuming God’s role through worry negatively impacts our mental and physical health. It is important to note that any negative habit that is performed unconsciously has unlimited power over us with very little possibility of our ever overcoming it. With regard to mental illness it is said that the most important step toward recovery is realizing that you have a problem, becoming aware that you have an illness. Such a breakthrough provides the critical step up in dealing with the negative behavior. In this same way, when we finally are able to see the things in life that are outside of our control as God’s business it is no longer possible to unconsciously take on that which belongs to God. At some point we need to trust that God will do God’s part. Our role, our part, is to simply do the best we can by being actively engaged in those parts of life that are within our ability to control. These parts are overwhelming found in the here and now.
Your brain is much more wonderful than you could ever imagine. The trouble is that we often try to use our brains in a way in which they were never intended to be used. For example, it is perfectly right that we should make plans for tomorrow, however, the human mind is not designed to see into the future in the way we try to when we worry. In the same way it is well and good to reflect back upon past events in order to learn from them. However, our intellect is not made to travel into the past to endlessly relive events that are over and done with. When they fail us, while we are engaged in either of these two mental activities, we may wrongly believe that we lack intelligence or are in some way deficient. The truth is otherwise, most of us have all the brain power we need. We just don’t realize it. The difficulty we have while trying to predict the future or re-living the past is because the human intellect is primarily designed to interact with life in the here and now.
One of the four main characters in the 1939 classic film The Wizard of Oz was the Scarecrow. Recall that it was the Scarecrow, played by Roy Bolger, who felt inadequate and incomplete because he perceived himself to be lacking “a brain.” This self-perceived deficiency was the subject of Scarecrow’s signature song in the movie, “If I Only Had a Brain.” The song spoke of the incredibly wonderful things he would do if he, “only had a brain.” Yet it is Scarecrow who consistently demonstrated the intelligence, “the brains” that he believed himself to lack in the moment by moment living out of the group’s adventure to reach The Emerald City. A great example of this is found in a scene late in the movie. Dorothy, Scarecrow, Tin Man and Cowardly Lion are cornered in the Wicked Witch’s castle and are surrounded by her guards. Scarecrow notices that a giant chandelier hanging directly above the guards is supported by only a rope secured to the wall directly behind Tin Man. Scarecrow grabs Tin Man’s arm, which is holding an axe in his hand, and he literally swings Tin Man’s arm for him, cutting the rope with the axe. While this is happening Tin Man is completely unaware of why Scarecrow is grabbing hold of and moving his arm. With the rope cut the chandelier crashes down upon the guards crushing them and allowing the four to escape from the castle. This is only one example of the intelligence Scarecrow displayed in the moment by moment living out of their adventure through Oz.
Life seems to come to you and me tediously slow at times. With our high-tech brains it is tempting to use our intelligence to try to predict the future by worrying, or to re-live the past on the screen of our imagination. However, neither of these mental activities ever accomplishes much except to increase our fear and our frustration. Living with patient trust in God’s unfolding work in the here and now can be challenging, but the fruit it bears in our lives is well worth the effort.
Sacred scripture is clear on which is to be given more weight, our ability to understand or having patient trust in God’s unfolding work in our lives. “Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not rely on your own insight. In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths” (Proverbs 3:5-6). There is good reason indeed to believe that “A handful of patience is worth a bushel of brains.”
The common thread:
Today try to live more consistently in the here and now giving up the obsession of worrying about the future or reliving the past. Experience the peace that is to be found in the grace of the present moment.