“Anxiety is the mark of spiritual insecurity.”
This quote comes up in my Twitter feed almost weekly. It always seems to catch me when I’m in a grumpy mood. That said, these days I’m always cranky when I read Twitter. I need to change my feed– or I need to change my habit of checking Twitter.
This quote is out of context, and as such, it conveys a terrible message to those of us who struggle with anxiety. As excerpted, it implies that Thomas Merton is saying something like, “if only you were more spiritually secure, you could overcome this anxiety!” I know this isn’t the case. I’ve read other works by Thomas Merton, that would be pretty un-Mertonish. So I went to the source because that’s what I do when I’m worked up and doing my best to avoid the laundry.
The paragraph containing the out of context Twitter quote comes from the prologue of his book of essays, “No Man is an Island.”
Now anxiety is the mark of spiritual insecurity. It is the fruit of unanswered questions. But questions cannot go unanswered unless they first be asked. And there is a far worse anxiety, a far worse insecurity, which comes from being afraid to ask the right questions—because they might turn out to have no answer. One of the moral diseases we communicate to one another in society comes from huddling together in the pale light of an insufficient answer to a question we are afraid to ask.
I’ve read this prologue before, years ago. I’d forgotten until I started reading it again today. I read the entire prologue, nodding along. I remember this, I thought to myself. Why did I forget until now?
I turned fifty recently. I’m not usually all that whacked out about my birthday or about aging. I’m happy to say that I’ve been happy to welcome every age as it came. I admit, I’ve been a little brought down this year, though.
This birthday, people are calling a “milestone.” What does it mark, exactly? Maybe halfway to my goal of living to 100? Maybe the milestone that tells me I should finally know who I am, what I stand for, what I believe?
If that’s the milestone, I think, perhaps, I’ve failed somehow. At fifty, it feels as though I know less than I ever knew before. The more I learn, the less I understand. Nothing is simple, nothing is easy.
What is the question I am afraid to ask? “Who am I?” comes to mind first, but there is a nagging question underneath, pulling on my pant leg, “What have I done here on Earth so far?” and then, “Is it enough?”
This is one of those anxiety-producing questions, perhaps, that I’d rather not ask. There’s a risk in asking this. What if I am measured and I am found wanting? I don’t want to be found wanting. Isn’t it better to not know?
One question leads to another and another. Each stymies me even before it’s asked. It leaves me babbling and list-making, and excusing my poor recycling habits and housekeeping and publishing credits and parenting skills. I tuck the questions back into my back pocket and hope they get lost in the laundry, but they don’t, and they won’t. They will keep tugging on me, and I will keep building my fortress of anxiety until, at last, I gather the courage to ask.
This quote from St. John Climacus comes to mind:
Ask with tears, seek with obedience, knock with patience. For ‘everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened’ (Matt. 7:8)
The first step is to recognize the cache of unasked questions hiding there in the pile of clothing on the floor. I’ll sort them this year, and probably the next year, the next decade, or two, or for as long as I have been given. Ask. Seek. Knock. Spend less time on Twitter. Pray. Ask with tears. Seek with obedience. Knock with patience.
It’s got to be better than huddling in the pale light of an insufficient answer to a question I am afraid to ask.