A Shared Life of Wrestling, Growth, and Discovery

Anxious, Human, and Happy

Fifteen years ago or so I had a session with a psychotherapist who, after having worked with me for a number of months, gave me her final diagnosis, “Gary you have Anxiety Not Otherwise Specified.” She added, “For insurance purposes we have a diagnostic code for that disease, and plenty of drugs to prescribe!”

Whoa! My resistance was immediate. For unconscious reasons I was in no way open to drugs for my diagnosis of anxiety! So I left the therapist somewhat perplexed. My diagnosis was clear, and I also heard her say, or certainly imply, that “Being anxious is a disease and is not part of being healthy.” What could I do, short of drugs, to “solve” my “problem” of having this “disease” now diagnosed as “anxiety not otherwise specified”? The unasked question was of course, “And why not drugs?” It seemed my soul was directing me in a direction other than drugs, at least for now.

Practically, what did “being anxious” mean to me? I saw that for me, influenced strongly by my religious upbringing, anxiety carried a lot of weight. Having anxiety meant that my faith, so important, even central, to me, had failed me. Early on I had concluded that whatever my “faith” was, if I found myself anxious and fearful, it would be a sure sign that my faith was not working, because if my faith were working and if I were totally trusting whomever or whatever my faith prescribed, then my faith would remove any and all anxiety I might otherwise have. I further seem to have concluded at a young age that finding and believing correct answers to the greatest metaphysical questions of life was a life-project of utmost importance and that such understanding would eliminate all anxiety – a serious version of Garrison Keillor’s character Guy Noir.

I can see that much of my life has been a mostly-unconscious search of these “correct” answers to the “greatest metaphysical questions of life.” And, in looking back, I realize that my defense against the disharmonies and pain that anxiety would create in me, at least until such time that I happened to find these “correct” answers, would be to keep my anxiety a deep dark secret – a secret from others (both peers and especially those serving in positions of religious authority) – and even a secret from myself.

Let me introduce a little history into this writing piece. From childhood into early adulthood, having been solidly rooted in my church from birth, I had mostly rested secure in life, believing that Christianity in general and the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod (the LCMS) in particular held true, reliable, and correct answers to any big metaphysical questions of life I might ever ask. This belief in the LCMS for answers to life’s greatest questions regarding the meaning of life relieved me of any further responsibility for discovering what these deeper questions of life might be, for admitting that I did not have answers to these questions, and for searching for answers to any “big” questions that might arise. Now free from having to deal with such big questions, I could go about a more normal life!

And this belief and trust in the authority of the LCMS delivered (or blinded) me, at least on a superficial level, from feeling fear and anxiety. This delivery from feeling anxiety or fear was most notable when, forty-five years ago, my parents were killed in a car crash. There was “no reason for anxiety even in the face of such obvious tragedy, because Mom and Dad were ‘Asleep with Jesus,’ as their tombstone would read, awaiting resurrection and heaven.”

But the death of my parents did lead me to hunker down more intensely and seriously in my bible study – both in its Lutheran and Christian Fundamentalist forms – and to do so for the next twenty years. Yes, my faith was all-important! It was needed to hold my anxiety at bay in any and all life’s challenging situations – even death. With faith I could coast into a more normal American lifestyle freely pursuing all its various identities – social, career, family, and service organization identities.

And so life was good. I was mostly leading a very comfortable and fulfilling life. But in my mid-forties, fifteen years after my parents’ deaths, anxiety began emerging anew, at first slowly but increasingly in force. An inner voice needed to be heard! Try as I might, no amount of spiritual work or bible study or searching would bring total relief to my rising anxiety. And so in the next twenty-five years I explored courses, groups, and programs – avenues that were outside the LCMS and Christian Fundamentalism. In 2000 I eagerly added Pathwork as one of these avenues, and Pathwork became the spiritual path I have pursued with the greatest intensity ever since.

While all this additional work in Pathwork and other avenues had helped greatly, those times when I would get quiet enough to be honest with myself I realized I still held, mostly unconsciously, deep anxiety concerning central pieces of life and of my early Christian upbringing. I had not integrated my early life into my current life. And integration of my early Christian life seemed to be calling me to give it the attention it deserved.

Not surprisingly, the particular and central topic from my past that called for integration was the meaning of Jesus Christ to me personally. My regular Sunday-morning confessions through my first forty-five years notwithstanding, I realized that in truth, if I were totally honest with myself, during those forty-five years nothing had felt truly real to me about Jesus Christ beyond his historical existence at a point in history some 2000 years ago and his church-defined role as specified in Lutheran or Fundamentalist dogma.

It seemed that this question concerning the personal reality of Jesus Christ to me related directly to my issue of anxiety. I had thought since childhood that the LCMS, and later Christian Fundamentalism, taught that if I could just accept that Jesus “died for my sins” any and all anxiety I might ever have would go away. And yet I was unable to muster that required acceptance and faith. And more deeply I realized that “faith in Jesus’ work of atonement for my sins” (his death on the cross and subsequent affirmation by God of the adequacy of Jesus’ work of atonement in Jesus’ “resurrection”) just felt “off” to me as a solution to my lingering problems of guilt and anxiety. This “offness” of this core Christian teaching has stuck with me at a deep foundational level for the past ten years.

Tackling this question seriously, in the past decade I have done a lot of “Jesus Christ work” – sharing my wrestling in many blog entries that have been on some aspect of this topic. This Jesus Christ work notwithstanding, I was left in an admittedly low-level but ever-persistent state of anxiety. Was I incapable of “faith in Jesus” or was I just stubbornly refusing “the work of the Holy Spirit” within me who was “leading me” to the “correct” “belief” in Jesus’ atonement for my sins? Had my stubbornness and pride created a wall separating me from faith in Jesus needed for atonement and thereby blocking the healing of my disease of anxiety?

Over the past six months my search for a solution to my diagnosed problem of “Anxiety Not Otherwise Specified” unconsciously led me to several additional works that I am finding enlivening – works that resonate deeply with me and fall in line with and build upon much of the work I have done with Pathwork. Will these new avenues bring some relief? There is much writing opposing these new sources I am now reading warning me not to trust them, but I can only follow where my soul seems to be leading me – taking the admitted risk that where my soul, in its “deprived” state of “original sin,” might be leading me is to follow “Satan’s” road to “hell.” However, I feel I have no choice but to pursue these new doors that are opening in my search.

Some of these books that I resonate with include Spiritual AND Religious: Exploration for Seekers by Roger Haight, S.J., Stages of Faith: The Psychology of Human Development and the Quest for Meaning by James Fowler, The Denial of Death by Ernest Becker, and other titles. And I am eagerly waiting to get to Haight’s controversial Jesus Symbol of God – this book sits on my “must read” shelf, and its table of contents alone draws me to this work. Haight covers Jesus Christ from every conceivable angle! I am drawn to his wisdom, the wisdom of a Catholic Jesuit theologian, albeit one at odds with Rome.

Each of the above books makes reference to a little book published in 1952 by Paul Tillich who was then a mature thinker at age 66. Tillich was, according to Wikipedia, “a German-American Christian existentialist philosopher and theologian who is widely regarded as one of the most influential theologians of the twentieth century.” Interestingly, this little book by Tillich was also referred to me several years ago by a retired but highly respected Chinese physics professor friend of mine who referred to this book as having had a powerful impact on him and his spirituality. With his encouragement, several years ago I got and read it. Or rather, I tried to read it, but, alas, I could not really understand it. It seemed that Tillich was way beyond me. Today, influenced by the books I have been reading that reference it, I have again taken it up, and voila, I now seem more ready to take Tillich in. This little book, ubiquitous on most theological college curricula “must read” lists, is titled, The Courage to Be.

Of the many ideas put forth by Tillich in this little book, one of the most helpful to me comes in the early chapters of the book. His key point in these early chapters is that anxiety is not a disease to be healed but rather an existential ontological characteristic of human beings. Anxiety is built into our DNA as a condition of being human – like having arms and legs and a brain. Anxiety is not a disease for me to fix but rather a reality for me to accept into my life and live with! What a relief! Being anxious is OK!

In The Courage To Be Tillich gives several reasons for existential anxiety being inherent to our nature as human beings. For example, “mysteriously” we seem to just “arrive on the planet” and at some point realize that we are “self-aware beings” in the world. This state of “self-aware beingness” inherently causes us to be anxious with the realization that our very “being” may become upon death a state of “non-being.” After we realize our beingness, daring then to fully grasp a possible future state of our “non-being” can terrify us! This terror, Tillich claims, is a substantial existential anxiety inherent in us as self-aware human beings.

Second, Tillich notes that our state of freedom as human beings gives us responsibilities for the choices we make. Freedom and choice lead us inevitably into the possibility of choosing “wrong,” and our unavoidable concern about “choosing wrong” and what would happen if we would choose wrong again creates existential anxiety at our core.

These and other sources of anxieties cannot be removed. Why?  Because of our finite humanness. We are not God! As humans, we do not have the capacity to know what we would need to know not to be anxious about living our life.

Tillich points out that many religious clergy and theologians, until recently, have often been suspect of psychotherapists and psychologists. So instead of treating anxiety with therapy these theologians try to come up with metaphysical frameworks or dogma that, through belief in same, help us deal with this inherent human anxiety. These theological frameworks include points such as atonement for sin, forgiveness of sins, grace of God, the possibility for reincarnation or heaven/nirvana, etc. But these beliefs, which are inherently unknowable with certitude to our finite humanity and our limited brains, ultimately fail to provide deep and permanent relief to the anxiety we feel unless we are open to “taking a leap of faith” — and even then we fall into doubt as to whether our leap of “faith” is real enough or deep enough to save us. This is claimed to have been a troubling issue even with Martin Luther the reformer, but Tillich builds on Luther’s doubt as an element of Luther’s Faith – what he calls Absolute Faith.

On the opposite pole, psychotherapists, often suspicious of theologians and clergy and their dogma and rituals, usually prefer using counseling and drugs to solve “problems” of anxiety.

So what does Tillich posit for our anxiety? I have not begun to digest his offerings well enough to pass them on effectively to others, but the part that resonates with me so far is his suggestion of the possibility of an experiential faith through grace that accepts anxiety as an inherent part of the human condition. Tillich’s suggesting that anxiety is a natural state of being human and not a problem for me to “solve” – solve through belief claims or through drugs – to my amazement gave me immediate relief to the anxiety that I have been feeling or blocking much of my life.

My “Aha moment” was realizing that my “problem or neurotic anxiety” was not anxiety per se but rather I experienced “problem anxietyover havingnatural anxiety.” In other words, my “natural anxiety” was a result of my being human while my “problem anxiety” was in my not accepting my humanness with its “natural anxiety.” While seemingly simple and trite to write down, the meaning of these words went beyond my intellect into my gut, heart, and soul – all the characteristics of an “Aha moment.”

In The Courage to Be Tillich says much much more, and concludes with an inspiring section in his last chapter headed, “The God Above God and The Courage To Be,” a powerful ending that I would cheapen and limit by even attempting summarize – so I suggest those interested go to this little book directly. But this is enough of Tillich for this writing piece. As Pat said upon reading part of this, “Gary, you have to take this trip with Tillich by yourself.” And so I do – as, of course each of us does for whatever our respective unique paths ask of us. However, I find that going through this particular door has offered me the gift of not being anxious over being anxious, not being anxious over being human.

I can be anxious, AND human, AND happy – happy for the opportunity to have this experience of living on planet Earth, and happy for the gift of the human experience of anxiety.

Epilog

I ask myself why this writing piece feels so profound to me. In a way it all seems juvenile and immature – harking back to my childhood for foundational “silly” beliefs etched onto my soul. After all these years of spiritual work am I still in such an early stage of spiritual development?

But then I realize that this “Aha moment” is a key piece of my shadow work – and, inherently because it comes out of my unconscious, shadow work is always surprising and usually profound. I see that for so much of my life I have been in denial of my deep anxiety. Having anxiety was simply not OK and so I covered my anxiety up any way I could with compliant conformist-based “look-good” religious “faith” or other masks – and all this further covered over with numbing busyness. And, since it was part of my shadow side, I did not realize this!

With help from Tillich and others, in this writing piece my anxiety came out front and center. In seeing it so clearly I could choose to spend time with it and come to understand it and eventually accept anxiety as a natural and permanent part of my human nature.

In accepting my anxiety I not only found peace but I also found a doorway to other things hidden from me in in my shadow. I could also see how these traits buried in my shadow side created problems for me and for others – keeping me separate from others, blocking my growth, and giving rise to many disharmonies in my day-to-day life. This is all Pathwork 101, yet I seem just now to be “getting” this on a more profound level.

Experiencing the benefit of finding and accepting these hidden aspects of myself – aspects under the broad Pathwork umbrella of pride, self-will, and fear – I can not only accept these shadow aspects but I can welcome these traits out of my shadow! In a way, as these shadowy hidden aspects come out of hiding they become my compass for my spiritual path and development.

While this “simple” shadow work is a core teaching of most spiritual work in general and of Pathwork in particular, somehow with this writing piece I am seeing this dynamic of working with this particular piece of “shadow anxiety” in a new way. Yay!

In a way this is like drawing a “Get-out-of-Jail-FREE card” in a Monopoly game. Free from what? Rather the question is “Free for what?” Free to become ever more fully who I am on my path of purification and transformation.

Drawing this Get-out-of-Jail-FREE card is a big deal, even when this particular card is drawn at age 75. I just noticed that the well-known psychiatrist and prolific writer Irvin Yalom, at 86, is releasing his latest book this month: Becoming Myself: A Psychiatrist’s Memoir. You can trust I’m signing up for that one.

Of course it’s not the first time I have drawn a Get-out-of-Jail-FREE card! I seem to have an entire deck of these cardsa lifelong process of Grace for one who so needs Grace!  With gratitude! Amen! Hallelujah! And waiting for the next card.

Shared in love, Gary

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Gary Vollbracht