The word of the day is “anxious.” W. H. Auden published his Pulitzer-prize winning poem, “The Age of Anxiety,” in 1947. That title is still an apt description of our time, especially during this present crisis. Psychology Today reports that anxiety levels in America are three times higher now than they were before the Covid-19 pandemic. But anxiety is a product of the human condition and has been a factor of our human experience since the Fall. We are fragile and vulnerable creatures who have built-in survival mechanisms. These systems respond in body, mind, and soul to alarms of threats to our well-being, and we become anxious.
In our reading of Proverbs 12:23-13:9, the wise sage of Proverbs makes a seemingly simple observation about pervasive worry: “Anxiety in the heart of man causes depression, but a good word makes it glad” (NKJV 12). This saying may sound superficial. However, if we reflect on this comment, we can learn from ancient wisdom what anxiety does to the soul and how it is relieved.
Anxiety Puts Us Down
The Hebrew word for “anxiety refers to concern, and fear, but the term has the sense of heaviness (Strong’s Hebrew #1674, 59). Our proverb amplifies this sense of being downcast when it says that anxiety in the heart is depressive. The Hebrew word means “bowed down” as one bows down before a magistrate (Strong’s Hebrew #7812, 275). But here, the term suggests that worldly cares bow us to the ground. We can say that they put us flat on our backs.
We are accustomed to associating anxiety with panic attacks. But the picture of anxiety as fussing, stewing, and wringing one’s hands is a temporary sign of anxiety. The sage observes that over time anxiety becomes a heavy burden. It weighs us down with the weight of worry. It consists of oppressive and often vague thoughts of undefined doom.
These thoughts help us understand how depression often accompanies anxiety. Such prevailing worry is so overbearing that it wears us out to the point where we have no more energy left.
A Good Word Lifts Us Up
With this in mind, we can appreciate the tonic that the sage advises for the anxious. He writes, “…but a good word makes it glad” (NKJV vs. 25). The Hebrew word for “good” conveys the sense of a pleasant and pleasing, even delightful word (Strong’s Hebrew #2896, 103). It is an expression that lifts the heart. A kind and understanding word shares the burden of concern that weighs so heavily on the anxious. It is a breath of fresh air in the staleness of dreary sadness.
This Sunday we will commemorate St. John Climacus (579) –649 AD). In his Ladder of Divine Ascent, St. John wrote: “Fear is danger tasted in advance, a quiver as the heat takes fright before unnamed calamity. Fear is a loss of assurance” (John Climacus, The Ladder of Divine Ascent. Step 21. Paulist Pres. 1988).
Why a Good Word is Uplifting
St. John might as well have spoken about anxiety, for anxiety is the anticipation of danger. Moreover, the anxious mood is a general foreboding that the person feels rather than is able to describe. Thus, St. John explains why a good word is so uplifting to those who worry. This message makes those who worry “glad” because it is a word of assurance. It is the thought that whatever the danger is, it can be overcome. But if it is not overcome, then can be endured. Those who are anxious cannot find this understanding in themselves, it must be spoken to them. But once heard, it alleviates the worry.
Echoing the words of the Lord in the Sermon on the Mount (Luke 1222-31, St. Porphyrios wrote:
“We live as if we were completely insensitive to the magnificence of God’s providence.”
All things are under God’s providence. How many pine needles have each pine tree? Can you count them? God, however, knows them, and without His will, not one falls to the ground. Just as with the hairs of our heads, they are all numbered. He provides for the smallest details of our life: He loves us and protects us (Porphyrios 2005, 193).
In our cynical age, these words may seem naïve and foolish. But remember that God’s wisdom is foolishness to the world. How do these pleasant words of St. Porphrios address the anxiety of our present age? How do they give assurance that lifts us up from the oppression of worry and care?
Porphyrios, St. 2005. Wounded by Love: the Life and the Wisdom of Saint Porphyrios. Translated by John Raffan. Limni, Evia, Greece: Denise Harvey, Publisher