Many of us feel more stressed out today than we did five years ago. Seventy-five percent of the people in a new American Psychological Association survey cited work and money as the leading cause of stress, up from 59 percent in the same survey last year. And half said costs related to housing – rent, mortgage payments – were significant sources of stress.
Clearly, a lot of us feel uncertain about our economic future. And anxiety is always about the future. We can’t really feel anxious about what happened in the past, and as for the present – well, that just happened, too. Sometimes anxiety is adaptive: If you are worried about your personal finances, the anxiety could help motivate you to cut expenses or try to renegotiate a mortgage. But the best outcome would still only hedge your bets. It doesn’t change that uncertain economic future.
Then again, everything about the future is uncertain – not just finances but our health, our children’s welfare, even our lives. And stress is about our failed efforts to control something we cannot control. So how do we cope with the anxiety of not being able to control something we feel is critically important?
One evening my son-in-law Pat and I had a long talk exploring our different economic philosophies. I am much more conservative (economically) than he and Debbie, so I sometimes feel anxious about their future. After hearing my concern, he told me a long story about a successful business he had owned 15 years earlier. And how, through a series of misfortunes, he had to declare personal bankruptcy.
I interrupted: “Pat, I just told you about my anxiety and here you are telling me you went bankrupt. I’m not feeling better!”
With great compassion he responded: “That’s the point, Dan. Look at where I’ve been and where I am now. Not only have I learned about bad decisions I wouldn’t make again, I have also learned that I have the courage, the intelligence and creativity to come back from the bottom. Because of that experience, I’m confident I will always be able to care for my family, and you can be confident also.”
What Pat was telling me was he had faith. Not faith that they wouldn’t have problems; he couldn’t know that. He had faith in his own resilience and ability to survive adversity.
How did he get that faith? Adversity. Adversity is not only how we learn about our resilience, it actually helps build it. Adversity is how we learn about who we are.
Now here’s the funny thing: As good parents, most of us work as hard as we can to protect our families from potential adversity. Think about it: You have probably enjoyed your successes and accomplishments, but your great learning has likely come in the wake of adversity.
I rarely make predictions, but here’s one: In your future something will appear unexpectedly and knock you down. You will be confused, frightened and hurt. And then you will get up and resume your life. It’s happened every other time you’ve been knocked down, and it will happen the next time as well. Have faith.