Over one hundred years ago, Rudyard Kipling described in poetic form the profile of a non-anxious presence: “If you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs and blaming it on you…” Not reacting to the anxious reactivity of those around us is no easy task. Family systems therapist Edwin Friedman coined the term “non-anxious presence” to describe the person who is able to not be drawn into the fray of anxiety swirling around him or her.
It is an understatement to say we encounter free-floating anxiety pretty much everywhere these days – at work and school, in our organizations, in politics, and in our homes and families. We can sense our muscles tightening, our jaws clenching, and our blood pressure rising when the anxiety of others creeps into our psyche and hooks us emotionally, physically and even spiritually. And yes, there are times when becoming anxious is a good, even necessary, thing. Our pastor reminded us in a sermon a few weeks ago that Jesus on occasion expressed anger and indignation when circumstances warranted such a reaction. Being a non-anxious presence does not mean that we avoid conflict at any cost or that we retreat into a place of non-engagement with the ills of our day.
Being non-anxious does mean that we learn to identify our own anxieties and process them in healthy, therapeutic ways. These ways may involve counseling, confiding in a small group of trusted friends, physical activity, even humor. This we do on a regular and ongoing basis.
It is then that we can become a blessing to others who are “losing their heads” in anxiety. We can be the calming presence in a tense situation, the listening ear for another who is processing anxious thoughts. In doing so, two things happen: we remain better able to process and contribute insight into the situation before us; and we enable others to work through the anxiety that blocks their ability to do the same.
When Jesus’ disciples encountered a lake storm that threatened their lives, they called out to him, frantically accusing him of not caring what happened to them. Jesus, who modeled his lack of anxiety by sleeping through much of the mayhem, spoke an authoritative word of “peace” to the elements and brought calm. And who can forget his words of assurance on another occasion in John 14: “Do not let your hearts be troubled…Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you.”
We aren’t Jesus; but we aren’t powerless in the face of anxiety-inducing situations and in the presence of anxious individuals. We can be aware of ourselves and of what hooks our anxieties. We can allow the spirit of God to indwell us with a divine peace. We can practice peace, model peace, offer peace and become persons of peace. This isn’t “faking it.” This is how we become a blessing to others by our non-anxious presence.
Written by Bert Browning