Pain As Purpose – Wave Of Anxiety

There is a wave of anxiety out there.

It’s out there and it keeps increasing. It’s around us and it isn’t going anywhere. It doesn’t discriminate. It takes all sorts of people hostage.

I was recently at a Levi the Poet show in a little coffee shop. The show carried an emotional weight to it before I arrived, the artist being Levi the Poet after all whose material is shared from painful depths from his innermost being.

The opening acts, a couple solo singer/guitarists, took the opportunity to share some of their own stories in between songs. They were gut wrenching, tales of broken dreams, betrayals, personal screwups, and…..also about the radical love of Jesus.

A love that seems to completely defy what is in the air around us and in us with the increasing anxiety in our world.

These artists set the intimate stage of sharing deep pains they’ve been through, while in the same sentence at times turning around and talking about how we have a healing God, a God of life, a God who loves regardless of what has happened and what is still going to happen.

Brokenness filled the room. But healing overwhelmed it too and filled the broken gaps. Perhaps this is because space was given to be honest of our collective and individual brokenness.

A coffee shop worker came up between sets and felt compelled to share his testimony. He talked about how his call to become a pastor had come true, him and his wife moved to another state, were a year into what he absolutely knew was his purpose in life and the beginning of a promising career helping build up the youth in Christ’s love.

Then the church fired him after a year. Because they said he didn’t fit.

The opening act talked about the four year relationship he had that came to a terrible end. I’ll spare the details because they were very painful and I don’t recall the story exactly, but to be sure he experienced racism, a miscarriage and more.

Yet, both of these gentlemen expressed how Jesus, in spite of their sorrows, is the lover of their souls. Jesus gives dignity, provides the next day, the next foot forward.

I once read a statement from a Donald Miller book titled Searching For God Knows What. He said:

“Show me a guy who was molested by a minister and still loves Jesus, and I’ll show you a genius. The stuff that guy would have had to think through in order to arrive at an affection for God is nothing short of miraculous.” (p. 199)

I was in the presence of several geniuses at the concert.

People are carrying deep emotional wounds.

Then in addition to all that, there are pressures to keep up with the next overachiever you see in your feed screaming to crush it and work 14 hour days. There are models of perfect execution leaving us all with ‘no excuse’ not to execute as perfect as them in the information age.

I personally believe there is a strong connection to the digital era in all this increased anxiety as well. After reading Digital Minimalism by Cal Newport I see it all around now. The mechanism or the conduit, it’s a double edged sword to be sure. We are connecting better but we are not communicating better.

On one hand, I was in a room filled with people primarily under the age of 30. As long as there are reports like this one that keep turning out about Millennials experiencing loneliness at higher rates than other generations, despite our increased internet usage which is supposedly devised to make us connect better, anxiety will find a way into our lives as we don’t fulfill interpersonal needs we are wired to thrive off.

On the other hand I was able to go to the show that night because I found out about it on social media. It’s a tool that can benefit for sure.

But it’s about how we use the tool. And I keep seeing this theme of constant connection, a wave of anxiety, and an increased sense of loneliness.

It’s why it was so important to listen into all these geniuses at the concert. Levi in several lines of his poetry alluded to silence, stillness, quietness. Understanding we have to withdraw is the most important thing. It’s a true paradox, because we need each other and we need the community that springs forth from connecting with each other. But we also need to withdraw. Otherwise the anxiety is simply going to get worse.

Witnessing folks in person spilling their guts, many younger than me, was Jesus in action that night. Folks were doing something about what they experienced. They were releasing it out there. And they were doing it with and in the presence of each other.

I am left with the impression that my own anxiety is a result from living a life I’ll have studied and examined, and not done anything about.

The big first step for myself is showing up. Then acting on what I know.

And I know this.

I am not the only one in pain. And it would be selfish of me to keep what I know about dealing with the pain to myself. I must give and I must help. Because I must take care of myself, and as I do so, I have to reach out to others. We need each other and will continue to need each other. Maybe this is how the wave subsides.

The Rise Of Anxiety Due To Instant Messaging And Digital Connection

In case I am wondering why I am, at one level, personally shook in response to the book Digital Minimalism by computer science professor Cal Newport, and at a second level, shook for society en masse, look no further than this statement from Newport’s investigation into the present crisis on college campuses:

She [the head of a mental health service at a well-known university] told me that everyone seemed to suddenly be suffering from anxiety or anxiety-related disorders. When I asked her what she thought caused the change [from previous cohorts of students born prior to 1995], she answered without hesitation that it probably had something to do with smartphones. The sudden rise in anxiety-related problems coincided with the first incoming classes of students that were raised on smartphones and social media. She noticed that these new students were constantly and frantically processing and sending messages. It seemed clear that the persistent communication was somehow messing with the students’ brain chemistry. (pg 105 of Digital Minimalism) [emphasis added]

This bares repeating: messing with the student’s brain chemistry. Newport highlights studies by Jean Twenge, professor of psychology and expert on the study of generational differences, demonstrating in her work that the ‘iGen’ generation (born after 1995) and Millennials (born between 1981-1995) are displaying the sharpest spike in generational behavioral differences ever recorded. In other words, the way the iGen cohort behaves compared to Millennials is the largest difference in behavior between succeeding generations since psychological observations have been occuring.

I am going to agree with this statement and its revelations until proven otherwise for now, and work from this baseline in writing what follows. Let’s say Newport, Twenge, anonymous school therapist are right in their hypothesis.

What are the smartphones doing to us? To me? 

If I look personally at the first level, I can say given whatever preexisting cognitive conditions I unknowingly have, over usage of texting and instant messaging serve as detrimental tools instead of beneficial. The key being over usage.

Let’s say my ‘shyness’ I’ve always had in life is some form of communicative hindrance. Now, add the medium of constantly typing to people in a manner which allows for backspacing, editing, getting my random thought out there minus my speech impediment (yes, I was in speech therapy most of my young elementary school life), and all of a sudden the hypothesis of an altering brain chemistry in order to process and keep up with frantic, constant inputs from other people, let alone my own participation, is an urgent call to modify my behavior sooner than later.

Of which I have already.

Initially after reading the book, I entered into a state of digital minimalism as prescribed by Newport. This meant not checking instant messaging, not texting unless it was an emergency or to coordinate meeting with someone, and certainly the removal of social media apps or any distracting apps at all from my phone.

I was two weeks into drastically cutting down my messaging to friends. Not a full cut off like Newport recommends, but drastically diminished. 

And I have to say I was clearer thinking. I wasn’t as anxious. In fact there was an anxiousness of some other variety I didn’t even know was present to me until I cut off the constant engagement of messaging and connection.

I have unlocked some portion of my mind where, and this is the kicker, I recall being in undergraduate libraries circa 2005, reading class material and only focusing on the material. Not switching tabs every 10 minutes in my open browsers. Focusing intently on what I need to do. Not checking my analog cell phone for notifications. 

To stress the point being made by Newport and others, my brain chemistry already begun changing for the better in this detox period. There is no question. I was recovering a state of focus I’ve experienced, oddly enough, as a teenager and young college student.

As for the iGen cohort, they’ve only known instant messaging. What’s at stake?

There is an anxiety rising like we have not witnessed en masse. The generation born after 1995 have been bombarded with constant connection and are increasingly anxious over things that people wouldn’t normally have the time for.

The band Fit For A King emphasized this on a recent track. As an interview from Altpress reveals about the song When Everything Means Nothing:

Fit For A King’s Ryan Kirby told AP that he knows people who are depressed because their lives don’t seem to be going as well as some people who share a lot on social media.

“I just wanted people to know that no one is living a perfect life,” Kirby says. “If you are struggling with things like depression and anxiety, it’s normal. It doesn’t make you less than a bunch of other people. A lot of other people go through the same thing.”

As the opening line of the song says:

“One’s and zero’s fill my eyes
Am I supposed to be like everybody else?”