In + Out: a few thoughts on breathing

Some time ago, thanks mostly to the Comcast home page usually concerning itself with tracking the intricate and myriad movements of the Kardashians, I came across an article ranking the “most stressed out” countries in the world. In the study quoted by the article, researchers cataloged the breaths per minute of elementary aged children in country after country as a way of registering how anxious a particular society was at a given moment.

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from 7 year olds the world over.

As expected, societies in which people struggle to find food, housing, and basic necessities produced consistently high levels of anxiety in their children. Not knowing where you’re going to sleep has a way of quickening your pulse even if you do wear Sesame Street under-roos.

This isn’t a particularly noteworthy finding.

What was interesting, however, was who happened to be headlining this tour of anxious 2nd graders:

Not Spain, with one of the highest unemployment rates in the world.
Not Greece, with its profound political, economic, and social unrest.
Not even Rwanda, the Sudan, or any other African country routinely lifted up as barbaric, hopeless, and consistently worthy of your shoeboxes filled with dentist office gifts each Christmas.

Nope.

The band we survived an hour’s worth of set-up and 2 openers for is none other than us.

or, more specifically:

U.S.(A)

Elementary aged children with the highest anxiety rates aren’t those from AIDS ravaged countries crippled by generational poverty and political unrest, but rather those eating jalapeño poppers in the back of your Chevy Venture.

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More than any other.

BEST IN THE WORLD! 

(shouted triumphantly) 

For most of my life I’ve believed my anxieties were simply the product of my own poor work habits and lack of natural ability.

If I could plan enough
If I could work harder
If I could just finish

then I would finally be able to catch my breath.

However, I soon discovered that the nights I drifted off to sleep easily and the days I got through without a crippling sense that everything is coming off the rails were, ironically enough, the ones I ended up worrying about the most. It’s almost as if the anxiety itself, rather than its quiet absence, was the thing on which I depended for my survival. Over time, I grew accustomed to its whispers in the middle of the night, inviting me to believe that if I worried enough, feared enough, and treated it with the proper amount of reverence, then life would eventually bend to my will.

Put another way: Anxiety and fear were the tools I used to control the future, amend my past, and keep my nose down presently.

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So, whether I was successful or if I failed, the takeaway was always:

“Worry, because it keeps you hungry.”

Maybe you and your 7 year old watching Nemo endlessly in the backseat know exactly what I’m talking about.

Perhaps this is why many of us in the professional and amateur ranks of the Christian subculture don’t quite know what to do with Jesus’ prevailing message to those he encountered:

“Don’t fear.”

An odd thing about his oft-repeated request is that it’s rarely followed by a thorough description of why exactly we shouldn’t be afraid:

“Don’t fear, it is I, walking to you on the water…”

“Don’t fear those who can destroy the body, but rather fear that which can destroy both body and soul…”

Of course, because that isn’t terrifying at all. Thanks Jesus. 

I would argue, the revelatory moment for us in these 2 simple words isn’t unearthed in the presentation of an answer or reason that absolves our deepest fears.

Despite a great deal of marketing to the contrary, Jesus isn’t in the answer business. 

As a matter of fact, Jesus ends up getting asked somewhere in the ballpark of 150 direct questions in the Scriptures, and only answers about 3 of them with something that doesn’t involve staring off into the distance and inviting people to mystically “consider the sparrows,” or to calm themselves because it’s just him, doing something impossibly weird in the middle of a storm at midnight.

So, you may be wondering, what’s all this about? 

The first Christian pastor Paul described the early Jesus movement, and its communities populated by former slaves, eunuchs, and the impoverished working classes of the 1st century, as follows:

We are treated as impostors, and yet are true; as unknown, and yet are well known; as dying, and see-we are alive; as punished, and yet not killed; as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich, as having nothing, and yet possessing everything.

Maybe you missed it:

as having nothing, and yet possessing everything.

If there’s one thing that has remained consistent over the past decade or so, it’s that your “average Christian” is not a white, Republican, college-educated, Evangelical man. The “average Christian” is a poor, uneducated, South American, Pentecostal-Catholic woman.

Thanks to the work of organizations like the Pew Research Foundation, we’ve discovered over the past several years that in the industrialized, economically stable West, Protestant Christianity is no longer considered a very interesting or compelling way for many of us to live.

In fact, the second largest religious orientation (underneath Catholicism) in “God-fearing America” is “none”.

As in: “no religious orientation”

Coupled with the systemic decline of Protestantism in the industrialized West, is a sharp increase in the development of Christian communities (Protestant and Catholic alike) in Central and South America, China, as well as Sub-Saharan Africa.

Who are now sending missionaries to America and the rest of the “1st world”. 

So, it would seem from my light headed, paper-bag inflating vantage point: if there’s anything we have that those in the majority world do not, aside from TVs, cars, computers, education, clean drinking water, healthcare, and stable housing, it’s a God complex.

Or, in perhaps more Pauline fashion:

when we own everything, we end up possessing nothing. 

Anxiety can come from a lot of places:

something our parents said or didn’t say to us
something we picked up in the water several years ago thanks to a failure or an embarrassing misstep
something we tell ourselves repeatedly in order to “stay hungry”

But at the bottom, I might say anxiety comes chiefly from doing a job we were never asked or qualified to do in the first place.

You were never asked to control the future
You were never asked to manipulate the past
You were never asked to predict the outcomes presently

And, much like 9 year olds taking occupational aptitude tests and playing on semi-professional traveling baseball teams, it all seems a bit silly when you say it out loud like that. 

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Writer, thinker, and poet Thomas Merton famously wrote:

“there is in all things…a hidden wholeness”. 

Maybe we could say: “there is in all things a forgotten dependency.”

Underneath the schedules, and the calendaring, and the ladder climbing, and the retirement saving, and the endless pre-K tutoring sessions for our both talented and gifted toddler, there is a forgotten truth embedded deep within every single human being across the socio-economic spectrum:

We all depend on something other than ourselves for survival, and despite a great deal of marketing to the contrary, we aren’t alone, and we never have been. 

This is a truth our brothers and sisters in the majority world have embraced for centuries as they walk miles for water each day and find themselves at the merciless whims of drought, famine, and the ballooning clothing budgets of 15 year olds from Des Moines. It’s a truth those of us who text our children from downstairs to remind them of dinner, and take 40 minute showers while we wait for a song on our waterproof radio to finish, have long since forgotten.

One whispering to us that the only way we’ll ever be free of our fears and anxieties is if we manage to divest ourselves of the need for certainty, control, and a solid explanation for why exactly a first century rabbi is hiking out to us on the lake without a boat.

The message of those majority world missionaries (not to mention the early Jesus followers) is this:

when we own very little and attempt to control even less, we might discover that we actually possess a great deal more than we ever imagined.

So may you come to see that life is indeed outside of your control, and in that discovery, may you find rest and grace and peace and the stability that comes from remembering that it isn’t beyond someone else’s.  

In and out

In and out

In and out

 

 

Eric Minton

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About the Author
Eric is a writer, pastor, pug enthusiast, and chief curator of the sacred at www.newheresies.com. He lives with his wife Lindsay and their pug Penny in Knoxville, TN. You can follow him on twitter @ericminton or connect with him on Facebook.

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  • jimeditor

    Nicely done, Eric. Informative, inspirational and entertaining. And I read it despite my aversion to things Kardashian

    • Eric Minton

      Thanks Jim! We all have a cross to bear when it comes to knowing far too much about the Kardashians.