I'm quite an anxious person inside. I don't like it that I'm made that way, and I don't much like it when others point it out. But there we are. And I am not alone. Since my own antennae are attuned that way, I sense the feeling in many others too. (Has it always been that way? I expect so: it's pretty primal. But one of the paradoxes of postmodernity is that we are both better resourced and more anxious than ever before.)
Being anxious affects both how I act in my own right, and how I respond to others. If I'm not careful I can be too cautious, hide too much behind process (it's the “too” that's the issue, not the caution or the process). I can spend too much energy worrying about what-if's, replay things too much in my mind, and on a bad day turn a crisis into a catastrophe. Ring any bells?
Or then again, when someone presents their problems to me, as they do – it goes with the turf – I can go into hero or problem-solving mode, or alternatively problematise the person, failing to see the anxiety in them because of the anxiety in me.
So what to do? Here's a quote from Henri Nouwen, which is what has set me thinking:
An Honest Being-With
Being with a friend in great pain is not easy. It makes us uncomfortable. We do not know what to do or what to say, and we worry about how to respond to what we hear. Our temptation is to say things that come more out of our own fear than out of our care for the person in pain. Sometimes we say things like “Well, you're doing a lot better than yesterday,” or “You will soon be your old self again,” or “I'm sure you will get over this.” But often we know that what we're saying is not true, and our friends know it too.
We do not have to play games with each other. We can simply say: “I am your friend, I am happy to be with you.” We can say that in words or with touch or with loving silence. Sometimes it is good to say: “You don't have to talk. Just close your eyes. I am here with you, thinking of you, praying for you, loving you.”
Nouwen is writing about being alongside someone in actual pain. But I think we can generalise. When I am engaged with someone who is hurting inside or anxious, what actions can I take to first show love, unconditionally, not even dependent on my action somehow making them better? Of course we hope things will get better for them, and probably we would be pleased if our intervention helped with that, but aren't those secondary questions? Isn't the first task simply to show we care?
And to turn back to our own inner worries, how can I interrupt my own very natural reaction of fear? I've written before about being given an imaginary spiritual first-aid box with scripture texts to take me back into the love of God. And stopping to bless the people or situation in front of me that is so getting to me has proved powerful too. I wonder what can make the difference for you?