Many of my friends struggle with chronic anxiety and depression. This blog post is not in any way meant to suggest to them to “suck it up and deal with it,” as if their Actual Medically Diagnosed Conditions are just weaknesses of character. It is instead some thoughts on how to live as a limited being in a limited world and try to make decisions based on incomplete knowledge of the future without going absolutely nuts with anxiety and worry.
See, our common reaction when we are anxious about the future is to do our best to predict it. People anxious about the election checked the polls obsessively, desperately hoping that their candidate had a better shot of winning than the other one. They hoped that by knowing more about the future, they could rest more easily about it. Likewise, people anxious about whether or not they got a job might constantly check their email, waiting for confirmation or denial; people anxious about how they did on a test may ask the professor at the end of every class, hoping to fill in this missing information about their future. We constantly think about, try to predict, and try to know about the future when the future is, at best, heavily clouded.
It is my personal conviction that knowledge of the future, rather than providing an antidote to our anxiety, instead fuels it. We are limited beings with limited knowledge of the world, and the future is something we can never know with absolute certainty. It remains full of surprises and unpredictabilities; it is disturbed by a vast number of unforseeable events great and small. And because we are unable to know everything about the future, it follows that the knowledge we desperately assimilate to ward off anxiety will always be incomplete. There will always be more to know, more to try to predict, and because of this, our instinctual response of gathering knowledge becomes a neverending obsession. We gather a little bit of knowledge, we predict a little bit of what might happen, and it feels good. It feels safe. And so we gather a little bit more, predict a little bit more, until finally our days are consumed with compulsively thinking about the future, about what might happen and what could be. And if that’s not anxiety, I don’t know what is.
Am I suggesting that we simply ignore the future? Of course not. Empty “live in the present” platitudes don’t do anyone any good. If it were even possible to live entirely in the present (it’s not), our lives would be a constant minefield of shocks, full of naïevité and empty of planning. But we do need to have a more healthy relationship with the future. We cannot let it control us. The future is the source of anxiety; if we let the future dictate our actions and thoughts, we will never be free from anxiety.
I believe that the proper relationship between the present and the future is one of action and creation, rather than predicting and worrying. We spend a good deal of our mental capacities worrying about whether a decision was right or wrong, whether or not it will lead to a better future. But the real key to happiness is to act in the present to create a future that you believe will be best for yourself and for those around you, given only your limited knowledge of the world and yourself. The solution is not to ignore the future, but to create it. This goes for the world at large and our own individual lives and decisions.
I’ve been full of anxiety the past two months. It’s been, beyond a shadow of a doubt, the hardest two months and eight days of my life. I’m fully aware that this “don’t worry about the future; create it” philosophy is far easier said than done, because I’ve spent my time here in Germany spectacularly failing to do it. But I’m going to preach it nonetheless, as much because I need to hear it as because I want to share it with you. And, too, because so many people now have so much anxiety and fear for our country and even for their own personal safety: The only way out is through action and creation. It’s through actively shaping the future we want.
I remember vividly a conversation my father and I had two nights before I moved to Freiburg. We were sitting on the front porch at about one in the morning after a few drinks (and then a few more) and he asked me, “Okay, so say you’re visiting us exactly a year from now. We’re sitting on this porch again drinking whisky and talking. Now, I’m a gambling man. Give me some odds: What are the odds that it’s just a visit and that you’re planning to go back when the semester starts?” I told him it was 70/30 in favor of me returning. I gave it a pretty decent chance. And what was even more certain was that we didn’t even mention the possibility of me coming back sooner. The underlying assumption we were both making was that I wouldn’t even be coming back for at least a year.
Now it turns out that assumption was incorrect—by a lot. But at the time, I was making the best decision I could with the information I had. I didn’t know how I would react to living here, and it turns out I don’t react well at all. And I don’t really feel the need to talk about my reasons for coming back. They’re mine, they satisfy me, and the people who need to know them do. I don’t feel the need to justify myself to everyone. They’re not secret or anything, and if you really want to know, you can ask. But the short answer is that I’m not happy here and I wouldn’t be if I stayed longer, so I’m not going to.
So now I’m making another decision: to leave the seminary and move back to Denton. And I’m making it with at least as much conviction as I decided to move to Germany and enter the seminary—maybe even more. Does the unhappiness of the past two months mean that my decision to move here was wrong? Certainly not. I made the best decision I could with the information I had. But now that I have more information, it would be wrong to stay for any longer. And if it should turn out that I have to leave Denton sooner than I expected or for reasons I never anticipated, that doesn’t mean that my decision now to move back is the wrong one. I’m making it in full awareness that my knowledge of the future is incomplete. It’s the best decision I can make with the information I have; if it doesn’t work out, it just means that I need to make another decision, not that I need to somehow “undo” a wrong one.
For the past two months and seven days, I’ve been unable to practice what I’m preaching. But today, I find that I can. I’m taking this action and using my present to create the future I think is best for me and those around me. And if, in the future, that turns out to lead to undesirable things, then the right decision will be to create something new. I cannot foresee how this will lead to less happiness for me, but then again, I also couldn’t see how being a seminarian in Germany could lead to where I am now. And until I have more information that tells me otherwise, I’m sticking to this decision for as long as it betters myself and those around me. I’m creating the future I want, and I’m tired of worrying about whether or not it turns out to actually be the one I think it is. The only way to find out is to do it. All other roads lead to needless worry and anxiety.
So make your decisions. Take action to shape a better future. And when that future comes, if it’s not what you thought it would be or should be, then make a different one. Don’t spend your life regretting the past or worrying about the future. Spend it using the knowledge you have to do the best you can.