AN ANTIDOTE TO DREAD

 

Philippians 4:4-9

4 Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. 5 Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. 6 Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. 7 And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

8 Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. 9 Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you.

 

Most of us have experienced dread. It can range from being called to the principal’s office to awaiting a biopsy result.  The common thread in the experience of dread is an awareness of oncoming danger that is beyond our control.  Dread is the anticipation of something we fear.  Something bad, and we can’t be sure of how bad and is likely— but it hasn’t happened yet.  We cannot protect ourselves or the people around us.  Living in dread is exhausting and stress producing.

This has been a season of dread.  Without even mentioning the ordinary stressors of daily life,  Covid and politics have combined to alter and threaten us. Ordinary familial contact is interrupted, not to mention social and church gatherings.  Is it safe to visit my parents for Thanksgiving or Christmas?  Our grandchildren need more in home care and proctoring during school. How much do we allow our circle of risk to expand?   Some days I wonder if I am being overly cautious and others if I am not taking the risks seriously enough.  There is no clear end in sight.  Every time a schedule is suggested that might give relief, it is changed and extended.  It is hard to live on the knife of uncertainty.  I want to say the hell with it.  I’ll risk getting cut—at least till I or someone I love is bleeding.  But then I hesitate.  I don’t want to make a decision that could bring harm.  

And in this  election week,  as big a problem as Covid is (we are now recording our highest number of daily cases ever ),  Covid is background noise.  Our political divisions are more pressing.  As I write, we do not know who will be our president but we do know bitterness and distrust are being sown.  Whoever wins will be asked to lead  a divided government with a thin majority  and a whole lot of angry people doubting the legitimacy of the winner.  If that does not evoke dread, I don’t know what will.  In this political climate, It is hard to imagine good outcomes no matter who wins. 

In this reality we read:  “…Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near.  Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.”  

Rejoicing is more than I can manage right now but intentional gentleness is a direction I am willing to try.  

The first thing I realized was, especially in times of dread, we live on the basis of dark assumptions and catastrophic thinking.  This country has seen dirty politics, violence, racism and misogyny many times before.  Herbert Hoover famously kept files on public figures to maintain political leverage.  McCarthy demanded loyalty oaths and demonized anyone he disagreed with.  He cost thousands of people their jobs and many their freedom.  We’ve justified slavery, fought a civil war, seen lynchings and violent demonstrations.  Women have only had the right to vote since 1920.  Those are a small handful of examples.  If any of us lived through those times, would we say today is worse?  Today is plenty frightening but sometimes it helps to take a longer view and realize that historically we have survived some very bad government.  Assuming the worst and acting as if our assumptions are true often becomes a dangerous self fulfilling prophecy.  It is a harsh way to live.  Fighting dread requires us to be gentle—with ourselves, with others and with our assumptions.   

It is more difficult to do almost anything alone.  Dread grows when we feel isolated. Paul’s advice is pretty basic.  Pray.  Prayer is conversation and relationship—-a very present help in time of trouble.  The objective conditions may not change but it is amazing how someone alongside us helps.  And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.  

Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. 9 Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you.

I spend my professional life trying to be a good listener.  I believe in inclusion and the intrinsic value of each person.  How could people not agree?  But this  election cycle I was once again astounded at the depth of the division in our country.  It is certainly not new but for the first time I tried to wonder how half of the country thinks so very differently than I do. I realized that my focus has been on the shrillness of the arguments rather than listening for what was driving them.  In the counseling room, I know that when emotions start getting intense, there is always more going on than the words that are being spoken.  Speaking to the logic of the disagreement rarely is helpful because the emotional intensity has to be addressed first. (Many spouses have discovered this the hard way.)  

But for some reason, I have not spent much energy trying to listen in the political realm.   I am vastly more likely to try to prove my point than to be curious.  I have not looked at what drives my own self righteousness but have spent a lot of time complaining about others.   People are not going to tolerate being disenfranchised, dismissed or stereotyped whether they are  ‘Old white men’ or ‘Black lives matter.’ Nor does it help to argue that old white men have had their turn and should go quietly into the night or that Black men should be more patient (and go quietly into the background.)  These are people we are talking about.  These are people who need to be heard and respected.  If we are not doing that, we stand convicted and we need to confess.  

 Martin Luther King wrote a rule of life which included: “We seek justice and reconciliation—not victory.”   Competitive name calling, finger pointing and indignant self justifications will not lead to either reconciliation or justice.  It leads to dread. We are going to have to listen to WHY people are so angry.  Perhaps the paradox of our political intransigence is that by mobilizing white anger, Trump may well have ‘woke’ the left in ways he never intended.  As a country, we may have to face the fact that there are a lot of distrustful angry people on both sides.  Listen better, seek reconciliation. Without such effort, we will only have more of the same.  

I am not really sure how well I can practice what I preach but I know it is the right direction.  Hopefully the depth of anger that has been on full display will convince us to begin to remember:  if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.  Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen…”   It is the antidote to dread.  

The Lord is near.  May the God of peace be with you. Let it be so. 

 

Vernon Gramling is a Parrish Associate at DPC. He has been providing pastoral care and counseling for over 45 years. You can find more about Vernon, the Faith in Real Life gatherings and Blog at our staff page or FIRL.