My two Wednesday night Bible studies this week focused on Jesus’ command to “not worry.” Round one was with my confirmation class, seventh and eighth graders. I got the conversation rolling by asking the boys what they thought the girls in the room worried about.
The color drained from their faces. They were clearly worried about my question! The girls looked across the table defiantly at them, intimidating the boys even more. I heard such mumbles as, “How would we know…they’re girls” and “Girls don’t worry about anything.” But I wouldn’t let them off the hook so easily. Finally one of the guys blurted out, “I have no idea what girls worry about…tornadoes?”
Then I gave the girls a turn: What do the boys worry about? Their answers were swift and ruthless: “They worry about their grades, getting a girlfriend, their parents, how they look, driving a car…” I finally had to stop them. The boys did eventually admit to worrying about grades.
I repeated the same Bible study with my “elder” people’s group two hours later. “Women, what do the men in the room worry about?” I got a range of answers along such lines as “mowing the grass…”
“Men, what do the women in the room worry about?” The men quickly said, “Their kids and grandkids.”
When I noted that women seemed to spend a lot of time fretting about their decrepit husbands, the women all agreed that I had observed correctly. The men countered by confessing that they worry about their wives waking up in the middle of the night, giving them the elbow, and wanting to talk about what was worrying them.
There was one worry that none of them mentioned, to my surprise. I tried to coax them: “What is the most frequent worry I hear mentioned by both men and women as they grow older?” After half a minute of blank looks and clueless guesses, I gave up and told them the answer. “The anxiety I most often hear from people as they age is about Alzheimer’s or dementia. They all nodded. About four of them murmured, “Oh yeah, we forgot.”
Since this was a Bible study, I decided to pursue the Greek word for “worry,” even though the English word for worry actually has a Germen etymology, derived from “erwürgen,” which means “strangle,” something a wolf might do to a person in a Grimm brothers’ fairy tale. Worry is how we strangle our own selves.
The words of Jesus are recorded in Greek, where he tells his followers: NO MORE “merimnata!” That compound Greek word is literally rendered “a split mind.” Indeed, worry resembles the mind coming “undone,” in that when we’re overcome with worry, we can’t “get it together” to confidently face our possible problems.
Jesus’ advice seems simultaneously wise and impractical. After all, how do we stop worrying when we are in the throes of toxic anxiety. Jesus just tells us to stop, he never points out where we’re supposed to find the brakes.
Whenever I don’t know what to make of a Jesus’ saying, I just keep playing around with the words until something makes sense to me. Just what is it that “splits” inside our minds when we worry?
Worry is 90% imagination. But when “imagination” splits off from “being grounded in reality,” then off we go, untethered. Toxic anxiety, here we come!
Both Jesus and Paul had quite a bit to say about faulty thinking, most of it due to some split in the cognitive components of our thinking. Good thinking requires holding things in paradox: compassion and anger, community and individualism, patience and urgency, pride and humility, logic and emotion, prudence and risk, vinegar and sugar, mercy and justice. Whenever any of these comes uncoupled, our resultant thinking causes everyone trouble! Beware the split mind: merimata.
How then to NOT worry? The wisdom of the Greek language suggests that every plunge into worry is a sign that we dropped something. The mental “compounds” that keep us balanced and lead us to the truth have come apart, and we’ve misplaced one of the parts: the paradox came undone. Worry happens when urgency loses its paradox partner: patience; or when imagination loses its paradox partner: reality; or sadness loses its partner: hope; or surrender loses its partner: work. Worry simply means that we’ve forgotten something we know how to do. If we have faith even the size of a small seed, and we seek, we shall find the patience, reality, hope, and work to get through most of our dread.