cali2017_9
BY CHRIS KUO

When anxiety hit me recently, I never saw it coming. It was last weekend, around noon on a cloudy Saturday. I sat at the back of an empty classroom on the second floor above Marketplace, our freshman dining hall. Sunlight seeped through the window next to me, carving out shadows on the pile of books by Aristotle and Plato. I flipped open my MacBook, intending to begin my political philosophy essay. But, as I watched the cursor on my screen flicker, a knot of uneasiness swelled in my chest: Are you going to finish the assignment in time? Do you really know what you’re writing about? Why aren’t you better at writing?

Of course, I had no real reason to feel anxious—I had prepared for this essay by rigorously reading the texts, and I still had plenty of time before the deadline. I had envisioned myself breezing through the paper and enjoying a restful afternoon. This feeling of worry wasn’t supposed to happen. But that only made it worse.

You’re at Duke. You’re supposed to have it all together. Just look at everyone around you—why can’t you be like them?

I stood up. The sound of my laptop slamming shut echoed in the empty classroom.

A pressure-cooker environment

We are an anxious generation. We worry about how popular we are, how heavy we weigh, how much money we’ll make. We worry about nuclear buttons and rising seas and burning forests. We worry, and the numbers show it. A 2018 data report made by the American College Health Association surveyed undergraduate students at 40 schools. The result: 63% of students reported experiencing “overwhelming anxiety” at some point within the past year.[1]

At Duke, we face a particular set of pressures that accentuates our anxiety, from the hectic process of trying to join a Selective Living Group to the stress of cramming for midterms and finals. In this pressure cooker environment, we absorb internal and external expectations about our academics, our relationships, our physical fitness, and our emotional lives. When reality ruptures those expectations, the resulting fissures become ripe for anxiety.

Even Duke’s administrators acknowledge this. In an inaugural Mental Health Forum last Monday, a panel of Duke’s mental health staff and administrators recognized that anxiety often stems from our campus obsession with the “ideal Duke student”: someone who excels in academics, pre-professional extracurriculars, and social life. We think our value derives from adopting this ideal, so we drive ourselves to conform, often at the cost our sleep, our joy, and our mental stability. We rarely step back to ask ourselves why.

Although many of us wrestle with anxiety, we often try to cover up the cracks and project an aura of perfection. This becomes a positive feedback loop: it seems that everyone around us has figured out life and that we are the odd ones out, so we hide behind a mask and expect others to do the same. Along the way, we forget a fundamental characteristic of our humanity—that each of us exists as a messy, flawed creature. Anxiety is a disease to which very few of us are immune.

But, though anxiety may afflict us all in one form or another, it was never a burden we were meant to bear. Worry adds nothing to our existence. As Jesus asked in the Gospel of Luke, “Which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life?”[2] Left unchecked, anxiety can damage our health, undermine our relationships with others, and rob us of our joy.

 

Do any of us enjoy being anxious? There has to exist a better way.

Hungry for peace

I believe that Jesus Christ, the God of the Bible, offers us a path from anxiety to true peace. This peace that he offers transcends the mere absence of anxiety—it’s shalom, a Jewish conception of deep-rooted wholeness, health, and wellbeing.[3] One of the best pictures of this comes from Psalm 1: the peaceful person symbolized by a tree planted by streams of water, yielding fruit in its season.[4]

We can experience this peace—this flourishing—in the stress of our daily lives by shifting our focus from ourselves to God: cultivating a relationship with Him through prayer, worship, Scripture reading, and involvement in Christian community. As we do so, we begin to see that true peace derives from an unshakable foundation, namely God himself, whose character does not change based on the number of A’s we receive on assignments or the number of likes we have attracted on Instagram.

I share this truth not as a disinterested bystander, but as a fellow traveler. I recognize that anxiety represents a nuanced issue with roots in a whole host of factors, some as deep-seated as our genetic makeup. I also believe in making the best use of the resources available to us, whether that means setting up an appointment with Duke’s Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) or simply getting a good night of sleep.

But I also trust that our anxiety stems from an unfulfilled longing at the very core of our being—a yearning for an “infinitely gentle / Infinitely suffering thing,” as T. S. Eliot put it.[5] Our hearts throb for God Himself. We cannot find true and lasting peace until we know this God personally and intimately. Knowing God is what sustains me during times of anxiety, like that Saturday morning above Marketplace. Here are three aspects of God’s character that comfort me in those times.

God is in control. Much of my anxiety stems from the belief that I am the arbiter of my own destiny. At first, this thought seems intoxicating, and it has roots in our cultural value of self-reliance. In practice, however, I’ve come to see it as deeply debilitating: if everything depends on me, then how can I settle for anything less than perfection? In contrast, the Bible tells us of God’s sovereign control over all aspects of life: not even a sparrow falls to the ground apart from God’s will.[6] And for those who love Him, He promises to use even our failures and mistakes to accomplish His good purposes in our lives.[7] Peace comes from trusting that our lives rest in the hands of a sovereign God.

God is caring. That God controls the ultimate outcome of our lives would be a terrifying prospect without the equally important truth that God cares deeply about us, down to the very marrow of our lives. The Bible tells us to cast all of our cares on God, because he cares for us.[8] And Paul encourages us to tell God about every detail that we worry about, from something as trivial as a set of lost keys to weighty things like our career plans or our mom’s health.[9] God welcomes those who believe in Him as His precious children. What good father does not delight to hear his children chatter about the minutiae of their lives? Peace comes as we present every worry to God in prayer.

God is loving. I find that my worries often boil down to questions of identity and significance: Do my friends truly care about me? What would others think of me if they knew how often I mess up? Who am I if I’m not “succeeding” in life? But then I remember how deeply God loves me—not my performance nor my appearance, but me, his creation and adopted child. Nothing in all of creation, says Paul, can separate us from this love.[10] Nothing we do—nothing—can cause God to love us any less.

How do we know this?

Two thousand years ago, God demonstrated His love by becoming a Man and dying on a cross on a hill outside Jerusalem. He did this knowing we had done nothing to deserve it. He loved the mouths that spit on him, the eyes that scorned him, the hands that nailed him to the wood. In a way, those were our hands, our eyes, our mouths, for the Bible says that we are all sinners apart from God.[11] But that also means that Jesus’s sacrifice applies to us, if we willingly receive it. In faith, we worship this good, sovereign God, who knows what’s worst about us, but—and here we come to the beautiful mystery of the Gospel—who loves us still. Peace comes from knowing this God of the Cross—a God who doesn’t demand that we come to Him with an acceptance letter from med school, a 4.0 GPA, or the approval of an elite social group. He would much rather have our hearts.

[1] https://www.acha.org/documents/ncha/NCHA-II_Fall_2018_Undergraduate_Reference_Group_Data_Report.pdf

[2] Luke 12:25-31 (ESV)

[3] https://jewsforjesus.org/publications/issues/issues-v01-n10/the-shalom-of-god-issues-shalom/

[4] Psalm 1:3 (ESV)

[5] “Preludes,” T. S. Eliot.

[6] Matthew 10:29 (ESV)

[7] Romans 8:28 (ESV)

[8] 1 Peter 5:7 (ESV)

[9] Philippians 4:6-7 (ESV)

[10] Romans 8:38-39 (ESV)

[11] Romans 3:23 (ESV)

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