Worrying is a real struggle for me. Or maybe, not worrying, which implies that there are specific things I’m worried about, which is true, but not the main thing. Rather I struggle with a general sense of unease, fear, and anxiety about the state of my being. I’m deep, I know. It’s a spiritual fear, an existential one. What am I doing here? I wonder. What’s my purpose? Is life even good?
When I was younger, my fears had a deeply religious bent. I was afraid (and resentful) that God didn’t seem to be all good, and that my fight to please him would eventually turn out to be worthless. I would turn to my Bible, Matthew chapter 6, which talks about worrying:
“Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes? 26 Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? 27 Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life? 28 “And why do you worry about clothes? See how the flowers of the field grow. They do not labor or spin. 29 Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these.
It never really did it for me. I wasn’t worried about having enough to eat or wear– I was lucky enough to have those things provided for me, even when my Dad was out of work and clinically depressed. Or, according to some Christians, God had chosen these provisions, this station of privilege, for me.
I always wished I could find comfort here. When I was feeling anxious the other day, they came to mind. But I realized– aha!– they’re actually not that comforting at all, at all! At least not the way they’re traditionally interpreted.
Think about it. We’re urged to compare ourselves to the lilies of the field and see how God cares for them. But how many lilies of the field are trampled every day? Or grazed on? For every seed that takes root, how many don’t? How many birds of the air fly into wires, are shot by hunters, eaten by larger predators? For as many birds and lilies as there are, there are also many, many that die. So it doesn’t really seem like God is taking such special care of all the lilies–just some. And we’re supposed to compare ourselves and take comfort in their state?
The lilies and birds are just creatures. Just creations. And so are we. Rather than thinking about how God provides specially for the lowly, I find more comfort in the passage’s secret knowledge that there are rhythms to life, and all of us are subject to them. God sees and notices when the lilies and birds die, as he does for us. God celebrates when the lilies grow, as he does for us too. That passage turns out not to be about worries for food and clothes or about how much more special to God we are than the plants and animals, but a reminder that we are all lowly.
Which reminds me of another comforting passage, this time a poem by Mary Oliver called “Wild Geese.”
You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about your despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting —
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.
Whenever I feel out of control or deeply sad, this poem grounds me. It too reminds me of my creatureliness, and the freedom to be had there. I don’t need to pressure myself to change. God is the Creator, and God has designed all my habitats and ways for me. It’s up to him to change me, if he wills. I am just a little creature, just like the pebbles and the geese, and my home is the world; all I have to do is live my life. I take great comfort in knowing we’re all together.
(Final side note: I could complicate that will all kinds of caveats– the existence of sin and selfishness, the role of decisions and willpower in growth, etc. etc.. But most of the time I don’t tend towards freeloading on grace. I need to hear that I should let go, not try harder. I’m a firm believer that there can be just as much wisdom in opposite aphorisms and advice, but that one may be better for a person at a particular time.)