What is the opposite of anxiety? You could easily say that the opposite of anxious is calm, and I won’t disagree. But if you look at anxiety, as I often experience it, it can be expressed as worry. When I’m anxious I’m worried- worried about what to say, what I’ve said, what might happen, what has happened. What are the things I have to do, what are the things I shouldn’t have done? What are the consequences of action and inaction? It builds and it weighs you down. Weighed down with this anxiety inertia takes over. It often no longer matters what you might happen and how you might act, because events overtake you. The options that were once open to you close rapidly. And the guilt and the shame of having missed these chances and watching the world pass you by only adds to the anxiety.
So what is the opposite of anxiety? I think, for me, it is hope.
Hope is another way of looking at your choices, what you can say, what you should say, what you can do and what you should do. Hope is looking at those things with an eye towards positive outcomes. Having hope is appreciating what might be, how things could turn out in your favor. Hope spurs you to take action- there is no inertia with hope. When I think of hope, I think of how I want to channel my energy. I want to achieve things, I want to move people and leave my impression on this world. Anxiety won’t allow me to do that. Hope will.
I know that hope is sometimes dismissed as an idealistic dream of the naïve; that it can be packaged and sold as a marketing ploy, a buzzword for pastors, politicians and pro-athletes. It’s easy, especially this time of year, to see hope thrown around as a commercial ploy. The “season of hope.”
Actually, one of the things I love about the Christmas season is the story of the nativity, because it is a story of hope. I don’t know if this will sound hypocritical given that I’m an atheist, but I still find a lot of power in the story of Jesus’ birth. Of course, I don’t believe it literally happened as described in Luke, I don’t believe in angels or in the virgin birth or even that Mary and Joseph went to Bethlehem as part of a Roman census. But to me, it remains a moving story of hope.
The hope that in the face of an occupying empire and their jealous and wicked client-king, two peasants in desperate need of hospitality found themselves in a barn. Two people otherwise unimportant to history were having a baby who was the very embodiment of hope. You want to talk about an eye towards positive outcomes- in the midst of the cattle and the sheep and the hay, the most modest delivery room one can imagine, this baby was going to save the world someday. This baby was going to heal the sick, give sight to the blind and raise the dead back to life. He was offering hope. Do I like this story? You bet I do.
It’s very easy to be cynical about the holidays- for some it’s the rampant commercialization and the loss of the Christian elements of the holiday, for some it’s what they view as an intrusion of religion into the public square, and argue that it’s better for everyone to celebrate a pluralistic holiday season that includes numerous other celebrations and traditions. There’s a lot to be anxious about- shopping, cooking, travel, social events, etc. It’s easy to see why there are a lot of people who are depressed over the holidays- the burden of obligation can wear you down.
But for me it remains about hope. Yes, I am an atheist who loves Christmas. I love Advent and the building up to the story of Christmas. I love the hymns- from the haunting “Oh Come, Oh Come Emmanuel” to the (obviously) joyful “Joy to the World.” Even though I don’t believe that this literally happened it’s a moving story. It stirs something in me, the sheer sense that things can be better and will be better.
When you battle depression and anxiety, it’s nice to hear that message. To have hope that things will get better, that you can start taking steps in your life to feel better about yourself. That you can turn negativity into positivity. That your anxiety can become hope.