By Rev. A. Powell Davies D.D.
January 29, 1950
There is one thing, at least,
which anxious people will find plentiful, namely, advice. But the
more they consider this advice, the more they will discover that the
difficulty is not in giving it, but in taking it. "Anxiety does no
good," says the psychologist; "it lowers efficiency, dissipates
energy, lessens the emotional force you need with which to face your
problems. Therefore, get rid of it." "Yes, indeed," the anxious
person replies, "there is nothing in the world I am more desirous to
do; but how?" And at that point, unfortunately, the advisor seems to
stutter a bit and lose his fluency. "What is the use," you say, "of
being told to stop being anxious, if you are not told how?" For if
you had known how, you would not have needed to seek advice in the
It reminds one of the patient, away back in the depression days,
whose doctor told him that what he needed was a trip around the
world. "Doctor," the patient replied, "not only can I not afford a
trip around the world, but I am wondering whether I can afford your
fee for telling me to take one!"
Which, in turn, is no worse than the case of the minister who
suggested curing anxiety by prayer. "Didn't that do some good?" he
asked, after praying with the anxious parishioner? "It may have done
God some good," the parishioner replied, "but me--I feel just about
It is not only the modern psychologists, however, who command us to
stop being anxious; the ancient sages and the prophets of religion
give the same advice. It is soothing, sometimes, to listen to the
words in which they give it. "Be not anxious for your life; consider
the lilies of the field, how they grow; they toil not, neither do
they spin;" or "The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. He
leadeth me beside the still waters. He restoreth my soul." Such
words as these, beautiful and consoling just in the very sound of
them! And there are other such passages in the ancient philosophers,
such s Marcus Aurelius or Epictetus.
But still, if we are entirely candid, we have to admit that the
effect of listening to these words wears off. Perhaps it shouldn't,
but it does. We do not quite know what is transmitted by such words,
or what resources they are intended to invoke. Perhaps what they
mean is that we could all, if we wished, live a much simpler life.
Possibly an entirely simple life, similar, for example, to that of
St. Francis of Assisi. It is true, apparently, that St. Francis did
live a simple life, a very simple life, and made a notable success
Yet, it has to be admitted that most of us are not like St.
Francis--not like him in the least; and furthermore, that in the
modern world, this may in some respects be rather fortunate. Let us
be honest. If everyone began behaving exactly as St. Francis did,
say at 8 a.m. tomorrow, the result would be disastrous. Where would
we be if St. Francis were President, or Secretary of State, or even
an ordinary commuter--say to the Pentagon and back--riding,
presumably, on a donkey. If he tried it on a Monday, I think the
chances are much against his repeating the experiment on Tuesday.
Even a saint would find a few things to say in favor of the
convenience, if not the luxury, of the Capital Transit Company's
omnibuses--yes, music and all--though he might resent its
interference with his meditation. For the modern world is the modern
world and it is of no use pretending that it is something simpler.
The experiment in simple living has been tried, of course, in recent
times, by the Mahatma Gandhi. He lived simply, wove his own cloth,
ate frugally...we know the story. But he needed the telegraph and
the newspaper, or how would his influence have been spread abroad?
He may not always have read the news, but he certainly intended to
make the news--and did it very successfully. Although his personal
life was much simplified, he was nevertheless a part of a
complicated, mechanized modern world, and remained this no matter
what he did, and being a saint of considerable talent and
perspicuity, he knew it. After all, Gandhi was once a lawyer, and a
brilliant one, and therefore, he never forgot the jury--which, in
this case, was the world, and he had to use modern methods for the
world to hear him.
And--although I say this with deep respect to the Mahatma, whom I
much admire--the modern world is and remains a very complicated
world, which could not possibly be run by nothing but Gandhis.
Probably he himself would have agreed to this--indeed, he might even
have insisted upon it and stood aghast at the thought of a world
entirely filled with Gandhis. Not many saints really want to see
No, we have to take the modern world pretty much as it is,
complexity and all. And we have to try to solve its problems--not
abandon them. The literally simple life is not available.
Very well, then, what is available? Can anxiety be mastered? I think
the answer depends in the first place upon what we mean by
"mastered." If we mean banished, then I think that for most people,
it is expecting too much. Not that anxiety could not be completely
done away with by the perfect application of the principles applying
to it. The difficulty lies in achieving such a perfect application.
Anyone who had liberated within himself the resources with which to
do it would be so perfect in the first place that he would never
have found anxiety a problem.
No, when we say "mastered," I think we should be candid. I think we
should define our expectation, and the area of application. We must
leave out, for example, pathological forms of anxiety, such as
anxiety neuroses. I know that normalcy shades off gradually into
these abnormal states, but we have to imagine a line of demarcation
somewhere. We must also forsake the hope of ever reaching perfect
equanimity--on any basis. Most of us have to admit that our moods
will change; and so will the circumstances to which they respond. We
will be anxious sometimes, no matter what we do about it. We may not
always have the sheer physical support for mental calm. We can get
very tired, and overwrought. We can lose the wholesomeness that goes
with health. When this takes place, we will be likely to be anxious.
In what sense, then, can we use the word, "mastered"? In the sense,
I think, that we can speak of mastery of anything human--that is to
say, it will be fallible and incomplete and liable to interruption.
Just as we say that we have mastered the air and yet we have
aeronautical accidents, or that we have mastered certain diseases,
and yet people die because we cannot always cure them. All human
mastery is incomplete. In this limited sense--a reasonable sense,
and, I believe, a true one--we can relieve and master our anxieties.
We can keep them under control; we can prevent them, for the most
part, from using up too much of our energy, or greatly lowering our
efficiency or dissipating our morale. How?
Let me try to give the answer, so far as I know it, in terms that
are utterly practical. There are four principles or rules, which,
taken together, will give us mastery over anxiety, at least a great
deal of the time.
The first is: Face the realities. Nothing is so terrible when you
face it as when you run away from it. Now, the first reality, and
one which superficial sorts of religion try to mask or hide, is that
of limited security. We live on a spinning ball, all but the outer
crust of which is flame; we live on it subject to all its hazards
and we always will: these include earthquake and hurricane, tornado
and eruption, storm and avalanche, fire and flood. We live our
physical lives within our own precarious bodies, subject to all the
perils of disease, all the dangers of accident. We live our mental
lives subject to all the chances of error, all the possibilities
that reason itself may be unseated. Anything we have may at any time
be taken away. When we rebel against misfortune and are bitter
because of loss, we have forgotten that life has never given us any
guarantees. In spite of all the title-deeds that fill the vaults of
banks, not one of us securely owns a single thing. For a few short
years with all their hazards, we have the use of them and that is
all. There is nothing that we call our own which may not at any time
Yes, and in spite of all that we may do for our own security, and in
spite of all that human society may add to this to make us
safer--and I think human society should do its best--nevertheless
safety and security will always be flimsy things, easily blown away.
That is why the sages and the prophets are absolutely practical when
they tell us not to depend upon material things. It is not just a
question of whether it is right or wrong to do so; it is a question
of whether it is intelligent. The plain fact is that material things
are not dependable. It is therefore folly to depend upon them. To do
so is to build a house upon sand. When the storm comes, it is likely
to be washed away. The first reality, therefore, is the reality of
limited security. We should all make friends with it, because it
will be with us all our lives.
We must also face the realities in other ways, however. We must face
the realities about ourselves. We must try to estimate our own
capacities and abilities with candor. We must know our own
deficiencies. We must bring everything to the surface and keep it
there long enough to absorb it and base our judgements upon it. Just
as many people never make their peace with the insecurity of the
world they live in, so others never make their peace with their own
real selves--what, nowadays, they call their personalities. Just
what is any one of us entitled to, in this world? Just what do we
deserve? Just what can we truly attain? How should we rate our
I wish to tell you from my heart this morning, and with the utmost
emphasis, that the sooner each one of us understands that nothing is
owed to him, that all he has is just a gift that he cannot possibly
establish a conclusive right to, the sooner will he find his soul at
peace. Today there may be the blue sky and the green earth and the
eyes that see them; today there is health and strength; today there
are friends and loved ones; today there is a little happiness; let
us take them today, for tomorrow we do not know. The present moment
is the only moment we can live in. The past comes with us, it is
true; and the future is before us, and we must aim our lives towards
it; but they both meet in the swiftly moving present and they can
never meet anywhere else. Let us accept this as a basic reality, for
that is what it is. It does not mean living without memory. It does
not mean ceasing to face the future constructively. Far from it. But
it does mean that all the satisfactions of any sort that we have for
ourselves are in the present and that the present as it exists at
any given moment cannot be perpetual.