Anxiety as a Form of Vanity
Friday, August 9, 2013Tweet
Vanity of vanities, says Qoheleth,
vanity of vanities! All things are vanity!
Here is one who has labored with wisdom and knowledge and skill,
and yet to another who has not labored over it,
he must leave property.
This also is vanity and a great misfortune.
For what profit comes to man from all the toil and anxiety of heart
with which he has labored under the sun?
All his days sorrow and grief are his occupation;
even at night his mind is not at rest.
This also is vanity.
(Ecclesiastes 1:2, 2:21-23)
When I first heard this Sunday's reading, I was thinking of "vanity" in the way the word is typically used, to mean pride in one's appearance. But when I went back and reread the passage, I realized that it was used in the context not of "being vain" but of "things done in vain" -- that is, things that are fruitless and will come to nothing.
(As a sidenote, this sheds new light for me on what's meant by "taking the Lord's name in vain" -- that is, using God's name as if it were empty and meaningless.)
I had forgotten until now that the first reading and the Gospel reading tend to be linked, which makes sense. I wrote about this past Sunday's Gospel reading the last time it came around the Catholic reading cycle. Both readings touch on the "can't take it with you" theme, reminding us that once we die, everything left behind becomes meaningless. But while homilies on this Gospel reading tend to focus on the problem with placing value in our possessions and money, something very different struck me with the first reading: the lines "[E]ven at night his mind is not at rest. This also is vanity."
When I heard this reading last Sunday, I was about two weeks in to what might be described as an anxiety attack slowly dragged out over a long period of time. It's not the first time it's happened, but it lasted the longest: a compulsion to yawn followed by difficulty breathing and a hyperawareness of one's breath. This time I was at least aware that anxiety was the root cause of it, but even after the main reasons for the anxiety dissipated, I was left with this horrible cycle of the breathing difficulties contributing to constant anxiety that my breathing would never return to normal, which perpetuated the problem.
After hearing this reading, I had the thought: "Anxiety is a form of vanity."
A caution against anxiety and worry by no means an isolated message within Scripture, from where we get the familiar verses, "Do not be anxious about anything" (Phillippians 4:6) and "Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life?" (Matthew 6:27). But (perhaps because they are so familiar) these verses have never been much help to me; does telling anyone "don't worry" ever actually make them stop worrying? If anything, it makes it worse: I'm anxious, and now I'm guilty about feeling anxious because the Bible says not to.
But this new thought I had after hearing the Ecclesiastes reading was, for whatever reason, more helpful to me. "Anxiety is a form of vanity" works in both senses of the word "vanity" -- that is, it is both useless and self-centered.
I was suddenly able to see my life, my worries, with a wide-angle lens. I saw my present situation as a blip in the long reel of my life. I saw the low place they held in the ranking of my life priorities. I saw how they measured up to other problems in other lives across the world. Devoting excessive mental energy to something that was likely minor and temporary suddenly seemed absurd. It was like staring at myself in a mirror when there was so much more world around me to see.
I'm not suggesting that everyone who struggles with anxiety can overcome it by this small change in perspective. I went to a counselor for several months this spring and worked hard core on strategies for dealing with anxiety, and clearly it's still a challenge for me.
But for me personally, this particular perspective was helping at pulling me out of an anxiety spiral. It took a few more days, but my breathing returned to normal. And this week, whenever I feel anxiety creeping up on me, I would think about this idea of anxiety as vanity. Even trying to get this blog post out before leaving for vacation, I thought, "Are you so important that the world will crash around you if you don't get a post written?" And the answer, of course, is no. But I get so tied to my to-do lists sometimes that everything on there takes on a vital importance, so much that I start to panic about getting through all of it.
This was the reminder I needed this week, and I'm putting it out there in case you need it too. Whatever is stressing you out right now, is it likely to matter a year from now? Ten years? How about at the end of your life, looking back? How important is it to your family, or to your community, or to the whole world, compared to how important it is to you? Sometimes we need a reminder that we matter, but sometimes we need a reminder that what we are worried about may not matter that much in the grand scheme of things.