In a recent article in The Atlantic, the columnist Ed Yong perceptively pointed out that one of the reasons why many of our Western governments are failing in their fight against the coronavirus is magical thinking based on “an almost blind faith in the power of technology as panacea”. He argues that we treat the pandemic as if it will somehow disappear just as suddenly as it has invaded and disrupted our lives. Our governments have contributed to this delusion by touting miracle solutions: herd immunity, summer heat, vaccines, various existing drugs.
Magical thinking is one of the favourite and most common strategies we resort to in our attempt to manage our anxiety. Self-delusion gives us some breathing space for a while, but then reality hits back with a vengeance and anxiety spikes again.
There might be a more mature -and incidentally effective- way of dealing with anxiety though.
Anxiety itself is not a bad thing – from the viewpoint of evolutionary psychology, it is the alertness, the surplus of wariness we need in potentially threatening situations. We are wired this way. We need it. The problem is that it can easily spiral out of control and compromise our physical and mental health. To prevent this from happening, we have three options.
The first option, which we have seen above, is magical thinking, which in the end is illusory and ineffective.
The second option does not rely on illusion but on suppression, and is epitomized in the sentence Keep calm and carry on. It is the option of resignation, the "stiff upper lip", self-discipline, fortitude, and calm in adversity.
Scripture, however, wants us to steer away from both magical thinking and resignation and suggests a healthier and more effective strategy: re-direction, that is using the energy that gets wasted in excessive worry and anxiety to a better effect.
Times of anxiety enable us to rediscover the endless comforting power of the book of Psalms: “I trust in you O Lord; I say, “You are my God.” (Psa 31.14). Anxiety can authentically be eased only by trust – and I discover my need for trusting God only when I am overwhelmed by the waves of my anxiety. Trust in God is not just another form of illusion nor a cover for resignation, but (our third option) me choosing to turn away from myself, and investing this surplus of energy in my relationship with the Lord.
So I turn to him, turn my anxiety into prayer, and slowly try to discover the peace that the Lord promises: “Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid. Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you”.