During the recent holidays I had the occasion to observe and ponder the pesty phenomenon of anxiety. It’s the great equalizer . . . the common denominator of earthlings. What would life be like if we didn’t have the ability to make it complicated? Without anxiety and complication, who would be left to purchase those over-the-counter sleep and indigestion medications? Those who embrace anxiety are hugging a thief who will gleefully strip away their peace, security, and happiness. No one is better off for having invited the vagabond of anxiety for a sleepover. You can’t change the past, but you can certainly ruin the present by allowing anxiety to mess with your future.
I quietly chortle to myself when I hear my friends tell me how fortunate I am to have spent so many years in the “peaceful, laid-back cultures” of Africa, Asia, and Indonesia. They make it sound as if Americans have some sort of exclusive lockdown on angst, apprehension, and fretful stress. We almost pride ourselves on the perceived exclusivity of frantic panic and disquietude. We almost take as truth that no others work as hard as we do, no other culture accomplishes as much as we do, none goes as fast as we do, none deserves to worry as much as we worry, and none works as hard at deserving to wear the badge of anxiety as we do.
However, what I’ve learned is that the misery of anxiety is universal. It’s prevalent in all cultures. Trouble seems to create a capacity to handle even more trouble. In your lifetime, you’re going to see a lot of anxiety, and you had better be on speaking terms with it. I loved the story Max Lucado told about one fellow who experienced so much anxiety that “he decided to hire someone to do his worrying for him. [So] he found a man who agreed to be his hired worrier for a salary of $200,000 per year. After the man accepted the job, his first question to his boss was, ‘Where are you going to get $200,000 per year?’ To which the [boss] responded, ‘That’s your worry.’”
In case you’re one of those under the misperception that all foreign cultures are tranquil, composed, and nonchalant, I must tell you I’ve witnessed some pretty bizarre cases of anxiety in foreign countries. In 2001, on one of my first trips to Kinshasa, Congo, my host from the ministry of health insisted we travel north out of the city to Bandundu on the route to Mbandaka. The route runs south of the equator right into the great Congo River Basin, with its virgin tropical rain forests. The road is highly traveled out of Kinshasa, but the quality of the highway deteriorates the closer you get to Bandundu.
During the trip, our driver made a sweeping curve off the highway and drove down a steep plateau to the river basin. Then he steered our Land Rover to the side of the road and stopped. We all got out. My hosts pointed out to me the location of a tragic incident that had taken place about six months earlier. It had been raining, and a portion of the highway had washed out. That wasn’t necessarily unusual in that area, but in the past, whenever there was a washout on the highway, drivers would simply steer their cars onto the jungle floor, drive around the washed-out area, and then return to the roadway and continue their travel. However, on that day, things didn’t go as usual.
The first cars pulled off the highway and attempted to drive on the jungle floor, but the rain had softened the ground, and the cars got bogged down in the mud and became helplessly stuck. Large trucks followed, honking their horns. The drivers knew full well that with their driving expertise, they could easily get through if they could pass the stuck cars. But as they passed the cars, they also became stuck. Cars and trucks just kept coming as drivers became impatient. Anxiety levels began to rise, and tempers flared as drivers drove a little farther out into the jungle, thinking they would find solid ground and be able to pass all the stupid people who had gotten stuck. But they, too, got stuck.
The protocol of African highway management doesn’t afford such conveniences as planned detours or traffic officers to direct vehicles in such situations. Some drivers tried to turn around and go back, but there was no way to do this, because the traffic just kept coming around the corner and down the steep road off the plateau. The only option available to them was to shake their fists and swear at the incompetence of the others ahead of them and then try to go out even farther to get around the washout. Each driver thought he was the exception and could find a way around either to the left or the right.
Before long, there were well over 250 large trucks and cars jammed up in that area. No emergency vehicles could get through to help. No one had food. The thirsty people began to drink contaminated flood water. They became sick with dysentery. Several died of dehydration. Other people died of heart attacks. One pregnant mother went into labor. But there were complications with the birth, and the mother bled to death, and the baby died as well. A couple of drivers were beaten to death as fights broke out. It took weeks to unscramble the mess and clear out all the vehicles. My hosts explained to me that the vehicles were spread out over a kilometer into the jungle, where drivers had tried unsuccessfully to pass each other. A total of more than twenty people died as a result of the fiasco.
Plato once advised, “Nothing in the affairs of men is worthy of great anxiety.” The unusual consequences of anxiety in the Congo River Basin that day certainly attest to the wisdom of that counsel. As the old preacher and theologian Charles Spurgeon used to say, “Anxiety does not empty tomorrow of its sorrows, but only empties today of its strengths.”
After that serious illustration, let me offer you another option for handling anxiety. I once overheard a fellow exhorting some of his friends with what I would call “wisdom with a warp:”
If you can’t accomplish something all at once, just take it little by little. That way you only spend a small part of each day not accomplishing anything,
and you can take the rest of the day off!